So much of my time is spent inadvertently in theatrical hell that I’ve long thought heading there deliberately should warrant hazard pay. When a play—say, Derek Walcott’s The Odyssey—takes a side trip to Hades’ smoldering depths, I generally yearn to be someplace where sadism is practiced a bit less explicitly, or at least where its victims don’t have to pay the price of a ticket for the privilege of participating.
Still, I always have to make an exception for No Exit. Jean-Paul Sartre’s wittily bleak exploration of what an existentialist hell might look like is as engaging as it is adaptable to circumstance. Played straight, the script is notoriously grim. But four years ago, the Washington Shakespeare Company proved Sartre’s conundrums could also be a springboard for comedy if approached with a briskly addled vengeance. And now, using a 1992 translation by Chris Kayser, Le Neon Theater Company has discovered a stylized formality in the play’s three-sided arguments that can be brought out through music and movement.
Staged by Didier Rousselet and Monica Neagoy in a pipe-framed, open-walled triangular cage that takes up most of the company’s tiny Arlington storefront, the evening never quite suggests dance, but is visually severe enough to strike the eye as choreographed. Its performers enter from different corners of their isoscelean cage accompanied by a shuffling hotel bellboy and an electronic whoooosh that suggests an airlock being sealed. Once inside, they confront just three benches and each other. No ornamentation provides distraction or relieves the gloom.
First to arrive is Garcin (Rousselet), a cadaverous journalist who hardly has time to wonder at the absence of racks, whips, and red-hot pincers before he’s joined by Inès (Chantal Maillat), a cheerlessly cruel postal worker who, to her new roomie’s bemusement, mistakes him for a torturer. Garcin chuckles briefly at the preposterousness of that—his sin, he will note later, was cowardice—but when both of them leer at Estelle (Neagoy), the glamorous high-society tramp who joins them and immediately complains that hell hath no mirrors, you realize Inès wasn’t far wrong. These three sinners are perfectly matched. Try as they might to avoid their fate, they will be one another’s tormentors—Estelle’s vanity finding in Inès’ viciousness (“Isn’t that a pimple?”) a perfect foil, Inès’ insecurity battered by Garcin’s casual masculinity, and Garcin’s fears inflamed by Estelle’s breathy come-ons.
That they do not willingly fall into their appointed roles is what gives drama to No Exit. At first, the three principals entertain the illusion that they can outfox their keepers through teamwork or simply by keeping to themselves. They bare their souls (and as the heat gets to them, their bodies too), in hopes of reaching some workable compromise. But each needs something from the others and this mutual dependence proves their undoing. “Hell is other people,” they eventually realize. The room is small—and getting smaller as the benches move inexorably inward—and within 90 minutes they’ve reached a stasis of mutual loathing. All they will ever do thereafter is play variations on rituals of torment.
Rousselet, who is the founder and guiding light of Le Neon, and Neagoy, who has worked closely with him since 1988, are engaged here in an act of re-creation. This production replicates in English the company’s well-received French-language Huis Clos of last year, and is essentially a remounting of the English-language No Exit on which they collaborated for Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta. It looks sharp, with ’40s film-noir imagery enhanced by a virtually colorless palette (including black-and-white lipstick and nail polish) and the fluttering light of a movie projector that bathes the characters whenever they’re offered glimpses of their living selves engaged in the pursuits that landed them in hell.
Neagoy gives Estelle a shrill laugh and a series of flighty mannerisms that grow appropriately irritating as the evening goes on. Maillat’s Inès is bitchily butch, and Rousselet’s gaunt Garcin has the shifty eyes of a man who always knew he’d end up damned. Together they’re about as unpleasant a bunch as you’d ever want to spend eternity with, which may be why the evening, clocking in at barely 100 minutes, seems longish.
Kayser’s translation is allegedly respectful of Sartre’s original (an assertion I’ll have to take on faith, having barely struggled through enough high-school French to assert that the plume of my aunt is on the table). It seems straightforward and a trifle humorless, though perhaps only in relation to WSC’s uproarious reading of Paul Bowles’ more traditional text. I missed the comic spin the WSC bellboy was able to give his refusal to provide a toothbrush (“Why in helllll would you want to brush your teeth here?”). Using Kayser’s adaptation, which eschews the “in hell” in that sentence, all Bill Harkins’ shuffling, squeaky gray-on- gray bellboy can do is ask the question straight.
Still, this production has one asset the WSC’s didn’t: It’s underscored by the percussive musical stylings of Klimchak, an Atlanta composer and performer who is visible through a screen in the theater’s lighting booth. His new-age creaks, splooshes, and noodlings are ideally suited to the evening’s environment, contributing neatly to the mood of desolate endlessness that gradually blankets the performance.