Life, death and whether there’s a heaven are the stuff of the latest play by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Finely acted, it manages to combine the sort of fundamental questions that torment us all with excellent characterization and a skillfully engineered plot.
The mysterious locale of the title, in Philippe Miesch’s cunningly devised set, at first sight resembles a luxury hotel or a clinic, silently policed by an intriguing young man and woman in white coats. Into this world, via a sinister flashing and droning elevator, stumbles 40-year-old womanizer Julien Portal (Jean-Yves Berteloot), whose last recollection is having been behind the steering wheel of his car.
Portal’s fellow inmates are an odd social mix: Delbec (Bernard Dheran), a pompous businessman; Radjapour (Rufus), a fortune teller in garish fairground garb; and a chirpy cleaning woman called Marie (Catherine Arditi). All, it transpires, are fighting for their lives in operating rooms on Earth — the hotel is a stopping-off place twixt life and death, and they are all fated to return to one or the other.
Schmitt creates conflict through the clash of characters and the contrast of attitudes. Proudly convincing himself he has been thrown into a socially downmarket lunatic asylum, Delbec spends his time planning to disinherit his family. Courageous and resigned, Marie is the first to be snatched away forever by the ghastly elevator.
Portal, meanwhile, falls in love with a late arrival, the frail Laura (Laurence Cote), whose earthly life has been a constant struggle against physical pain and emotional deprivation. Freed from such suffering in the hotel, Laura astonishes and seduces Portal with her courage. Imminent departures for the lift and statements about the characters’ state of health, meanwhile, are announced by the sinisterly beautiful Doctor S, who knows nothing more about the ultimate fate of her inmates or the reality of an afterlife.
The central strength of the play is the ever-present uncertainty about imminent death or survival — a dramatization of the doubts that assail all of us, to some extent, every day.
Keeping the tension tight throughout and producing a maximum of interesting movement within a one-room set, director Daniel Roussel draws first-rate performances from his cast: Berteloot as the impetuous, immature Portal makes his precipitous infatuation with Laura both convincing and moving, while Cote, as Laura, exudes a sort of waifish stoicism bereft of self-pity. Catherine Arditi is a perky and ultimately pitiful Marie while Rufus as Radjapour provides a splendidly gruff foil to Dheran’s Delbec, splendidly snobbish in every intonation and gesture. Viktor Lazlo, meanwhile, lends a glamorous chill every time she glides in as the emotionally detached and ravishing Doctor S.