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Theatre in Review: No Exit (Pearl Theatre Company)

Bradford Cover, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris. Photo: Al Foote III

If Jean-Paul Sartre now occupies some dark corner of Hades -- heaven would surely be a torment to him -- then he must be gazing up with a smile these days, thanks to the Pearl's revival of No Exit. A work more likely to turn up in a college syllabus than on a New York stage, it proves to be surprisingly playable in Linda Ames Key's fully clawed production.

No Exit is, of course, Sartre's vision of hell, represented here as a minimalist-chic sitting room dominated by three impressively uncomfortable-looking divans and a towering abstract sculpture. This is the eternal (un)resting place of Cradeau, a former journalist; Inez, a lesbian postal worker; and Estelle, a socialite and unregenerate flirt. (Trying to make conversation with the rough, working-class Inez, she asks, "Maybe we have friends in common. Do you know the Dubois-Seymours?") Cradeau and Inez at least superficially accept their fates; as Inez points out, fear belongs to the time when they still had hope. Estelle, who mounts an impressive show of innocence, insists it's all a terrible mistake. Cognizant of where they've ended up, all are a little confused: At the very least, aren't they supposed to be roasting on a spit? Inez is the first to cop to the bizarre justice of their situation: It's like a cafeteria, she says. "The customers serve themselves."

In other words, they are their own torturers, and all three are uniquely positioned to drive each other crazy. At first, the causes of irritation are superficial: Cradeau's habit of twitching his mouth and Estelle's inability to stop making inane small talk. But soon the games begin in earnest as the fa├žade of each is scratched open, revealing the ugly truth inside. Cradeau is exposed as a coward and Nazi collaborator. Inez fell for a woman and poisoned her mind against her husband; they moved in together and the poor man stepped in front of a trolley car. Inez crowed over his death one too many times; one night while she was asleep, her lover turned on the gas and killed them both. Estelle tries spinning a saccharine tale of how, as a poor orphan, she married a wealthy man to help raise her younger brother, but this is soon erased by the truth: She took a lover, became pregnant, and to preserve her reputation, hurled the baby over a cliff; the lover, shattered, committed suicide.

This ruthless exercise in mutual unmasking also kicks off a series of sexual power games, with both Inez and Cradeau trying to seduce Estelle. The latter sees such attentions as only her due: "I've pretty hair and after all someone did kill himself for my sake." This leads to a series of frantic, ever more no-holds-barred confrontations until all three come to terms with the idea that they are locked together for eternity, suffering from what Cradeau describes as "this tickling that never hurts enough." In some ways, the unkindest cut for all three characters is the realization that they aren't worthy of a really spectacular, Dante-style damnation.

No Exit probably isn't the shocker it once was -- at times, it seems like one of Yasmina Reza's human bestiaries -- but there's plenty of brimstone in its savage roundelay of seductions and denunciations, especially in Paul Bowles' clear and highly speakable adaptation. And, under Key's well-judged direction, it is powered by a trio of actors who know how to etch their characters with acid. Bradford Cover's Cradeau is a pompous blowhard who tries to pretend he is above it all but is really desperately worried about the reputation he has left behind him. (All three characters can look back at life on earth to see how they are -- or are not -- being remembered.) Jolly Abraham's Inez is the toughest of the three, all but boasting about her worst qualities as she asks the others, "Do I look like a person who lets her prey go?" -- a question to which the answer irrefutably is no. But she can turn remarkably needy in pursuit of Estelle, reduced to begging for her attentions. Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, a young actress of remarkable technical skill -- she made a strong impression earlier this season in Samuel Beckett's Play, at the Irish Repertory -- is especially impressive as Estelle, stripping her artificial manners away bit by bit to reveal the grotesquely narcissistic figure underneath. (In a panic because there are no mirrors, she accepts Inez's offer to be her mirror. Then, suddenly terrified, she asks, "But do you have any taste?") She is especially gripping during a passage in which she looks back in a fury of jealousy at a lover who has moved on to new conquests; she delivers the monologue with feverish intensity while executing a robotic series of rhumba steps. There is also a brief, but telling, contribution by Pete McElligott as the valet in this infernal hotel, his cheerfully poised, yet withholding, manner hinting at all sorts of menace.

In Harry Feiner's ingenious scenic concept, the walls of the set are scrims that, when backlit, reveal thick piles of landfill --- bicycles, lampshades, radios, baskets, and other objects -- thus making clear that the characters are planted in the cold, cold ground. Ann G. Wrightson's carefully controlled lighting reveals these hellish details using a variety of intensity levels and color temperatures. Devon Painter's costumes reveal a good eye for detail, such as Cradeau's period socks and the colorful lining of Estelle's dress. Jane Shaw's sound design mixes practical effects -- the opening and closing of the room's doors, the sound of the bells -- with dance band music and a sinister soundscape that underlines many of the scenes.

Near the end, having wrestled each other to a standstill, they collapse onto their divans, offering peals of bitter hilarity at their ridiculous shared fate. Having fought their way toward a recognition of their authentic selves, they remain condemned to their peculiar eternal sentence. If you've ever contemplated what the phrase "laughter of the damned" signifies, you can experience it firsthand at the Pearl.-- David Barbour

(10 March 2014)

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