When a character is escorted into a room by someone who gives maddeningly nonspecific answers, it's a safe bet that he or she is now a resident at the Hotel Existential. The thrill of discovering the who/where/what of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit may be long since passed, but nagging questions about the meaning of life and death will always remain.
The cast of the Midtown International Theatre Festival's No Exit provided well-drawn portraits of the three new tenants of hell and clearly showed their struggles to manipulate the shifting dynamics of power and control. Since the dynamic of the play continually change as each player reaches out, rejects, desires, attacks, bemoans, and needles the others, it was fascinating to watch Garcin (Frank Tangredi), Inez (Phyllis March), and Estelle (Claudine Coffaro) try one approach after another to get (and keep) an upper hand. Their hopes, dreams, fears, and desires were so blatantly on display it was like watching three children in a sandbox.
But while Sartre has written quite a lesson in human nature, it is also his fault that this production isn't more interesting. Plot points come across as so damned symbolic that the actors must work extra hard to keep the attention on themselves. And while the play was absorbing, it didn't become emotionally involving, instead remaining an intellectual exercise. That's what it is, of course, but there's enough soap opera to keep the drama-obsessed going for quite a while. However, the production did point out a commonly held fallacy of the play. While being confined to a limited space shared with other people is certainly hellish, Sartre's hell is more than that: it is the characters' awareness of being dead that's the kicker. Life will keep going on whether you are there or not, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Director Rodney Hakim kept the action moving throughout the intermissionless 90 minutes. Some judicious tweaking of the script might have been in order though, as the play begins with much commentary on the Second Empire-style furniture of the room. Since the set (uncredited) was simply three chairs, this became another symbolic hurdle. But the costumes (designed by Rosa Faulisi), executed in black and white, provided their point all the better for not being commented on. This hell is completely bleached of color.
Lighting (Jessica D'Aloisio) also made its point slyly, and was remarkably precise for a script that specifically mentions that there is no variance in light. When characters stepped to the place downstage where they could see the activities of the people whose lives they are no longer part of, their faces were brightly illuminated. And when the door to the room was opened, a bright red glow suggested just what was outside. In a play thick with philosophical arguing, it was a fitting joke.
(Also with Stephen T. Wangner as the valet. Original electronic-style music by Peter Cline and Daniel Fine.)
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Copyright 2001 David Mackler