In A.R.T.’s full-tilt production of Sartre’s existential and claustrophobic dance of death, “No Exit,” the characters trapped in a living room in hell spend much of the play trying to find their footing as they seek to strike some sort of balance that will get them through eternity. It’s a continually fascinating, terrifying and comic struggle that makes the play, and this production, a grand funhouse ride.
The work always had been presented as a verbal duel of demons, complete with bold power plays and sly and shifting alliances among the one man and two women who find themselves confined to their bitter suite. But Jerry Mouawad’s interpretation (based on his Portland, Ore., Imago Theater staging from 1998, co-conceived with Carol Triffle) takes the metaphor of unstable relationships, morality and universe to the extreme.
Mouawad’s set is a 17-square-foot platform that seesaws as the various characters maneuver around the space trying to find their survivalist feng shui. While it builds calf muscles for the actors — especially the two women in long dresses and heels, as the rake often lifts off at a 45-degree angle — it also builds tension with the aud as we empathize with the precarious fortunes in foreverland.
Awareness of this in-your-face theatrical device, stunningly lit by Jeff Forbes, allows a certain amused detachment that permits aud to take in the philosophical, the surreal and the cold wonder of it all. These seasoned thesps from A.R.T.’s resident company brilliantly walk that delicate line between farce and melodrama without once losing their balance.
Garcin (Will LeBow) is the first to arrive in this ultimate gated community, guided by his valet (Remo Airaldi), quite literally the bellman from hell. LeBow’s pacifist journalist has a hangdog face of dread that can elicit laughs or, when riled, shivers, while Airaldi is a nightmare Fatty Arbuckle, at once grotesque, playful and menacing.
They are followed by Inez (Paula Plum), a cynical lesbian postal clerk, and Estelle (Karen MacDonald), a vain upper-class nymphomaniac, both smartly and tellingly dressed by costumer Rafael Jaen.
It is soon obvious they are to remain alone in the stark room, filled with only three miniature coaches, a bust and a letter opener. (“Do we get mail?” Garcin asks hopefully, absurdly.) All want to know from the devilish bellman who their torturer will be — they are in hell, after all. But it’s no surprise, once we get to know these characters of deceptive virtues (“I’m a well-beloved shit,” says Garcin, the first to acknowledge his criminal, amoral and cowardly past), that the Torquemadas will indeed be revealed as each other.
As each tells dark tales of cowardice, murder and manipulation, as they shift their allegiances — sexual and not — and as they seek territorial and emotional advantage, it’s clear these three deserve each other forever: a woman who questions her existence without being able to see herself in a mirror; a man obsessed with how he is perceived by others; an estranged woman who finally realizes “hell is other people.”
But for this hell of a production, marking Sartre’s centenary, “No Exit” is a great place to visit.