By: JK Clarke
The idea, and the prevailing mental image, of Hell is fire and brimstone—a place of torture and physical agony. It is an archaic imagine, brought about by centuries of religious indoctrination of the masses and designed to maintain obedience and order among the populace, and to prevent wide-scale rebellion against the (clerical) establishment. But the Enlightenment and the arrival of the Industrial Revolution did much to dispel those notions for all but the devout. It has been argued, however, in philosophical circles, that some concept of Hell must nonetheless exist. So what exactly is it, then? No Exit, the brilliant and profound 1944 play by French writer/philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and now running through March 30 at The Pearl Theatre Company, attempts to address just that.
“No Exit” is a relatively poor literal translation of the French title, Huis Clos, which could mean, variably: “In Camera” (a legal term referring to discussions which take place in judges chambers and not in the open court); or, “Behind Closed Doors.” But, there is much in the play to make the English translation apt: three people are trapped together in a very ordinary seeming room which they cannot leave. They quickly determine that they are in Hell, for they have each, as they discover of one another, committed great sin: one has murdered a baby, the other has killed a family member; and the lone male, an intellectual “man of the people” journalist, has turned collaborator, or traitor (as well as cheated on his overly-devoted wife). Anticipating hot pokers and/or thumb screws, they are led one-by-one into the room by a charming, unfettered Valet (played with aplomb by Pete McElligot), only to find three relatively fashionable, yet uncomfortable chairs, an ugly statue and no windows or mirrors (in Harry Feiner’s beautifully designed set which meshes perfectly with Devon Painter’s beautifully elegant 1940s Euro-accented costumes). As they get to know one another they realize that they can only see their reflection (or themselves) through the viewpoint of the others.
Slowly, through arguments, flirtation and anguished tantrums, they realize they are each the source of the others’ torture. The famous, revealing line of the play is “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” which is ordinarily translated as “Hell is other people.” It is a line that serves a dual purpose: one that suggests that both the presence of others can be hell, but also that the reflection of ourselves in others’ eyes is true eternal damnation.
It’s impossible to briefly encapsulate the various messages and meanings behind No Exit. Discussions and deconstructions are worthy of an entire, dedicated college course. But that doesn’t make for an inaccessible play. On the contrary, both Sartre’s crisp dialog and Linda Ames Keys strong and precise direction make this a riveting and thought-provoking production. And the acting is top-notch: Bradford Cover (Cradeau, the journalist) is complex and multi-layered, a man who has fooled even his living self into believing he was a hero; Jolly Abraham (Inez) is the tough postal worker who must fend for herself and does so with utter confidence; and Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris plays the coquette Estelle with more complexity than one would expect upon first encountering her. She’s simultaneously self-centered and ambitious, playing shy and flirtatious to her advantage. There is wonderful chemistry between the actors whose characters, paradoxically, are not meant to have any.
No Exit is by no means a lighthearted play for a fanciful evening out. But it is one that will ensure thought provoking discussions between friends and a memorable theatrical experience.
No Exit. Through March 30 at The Pearl Theatre Company (555 West 42nd Street, at 11th Avenue). www.pearltheatre.org
Photos: Al Foote III