One of those iconic plays that’s often read but seldom performed, Jean-Paul Sartre’s masterpiece of existential bleakness is given a tight, relentlessly downbeat staging at Hollywood’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Slovakian-born director Jan Krekan is using “No Exit” to showcase the talents of his new company, particularly Czech Lenka Pochyly and Slovakian Jana Kolesarova.
The two actresses, both graduates of the Bratislava academy, share a singular intensity and focus associated with the theater of mid-20th-century Eastern Europe; one wonders what they would be like in the dark little fables of playwrights Vaclav Havel or Slawomir Mrozek.
Estelle (Kolesarova) and Inez (Pochyly) are two ostensibly contrasting women trapped in a tastefully decorated room with a journalist and professed pacifist named Joseph (Salvator Xuereb). It’s no spoiler to reveal that, despite its Second Empire furnishings and muted color scheme, this place is Hell. Each person has been escorted through its lone door by a quietly menacing valet (Ary Katz, appropriately creepy), who can be summoned by a button on the mantelpiece of the fireplace — a button that sometimes doesn’t work, the valet points out with a smirk.
The genius of “No Exit” lies in the shifting alliances among this evil trio and the way personal information and disinformation, carefully revealed, transforms the aud’s feelings about each of them. Is Inez really attracted to Estelle, or is it merely a tool in her tormenter’s arsenal? Is Joseph really a pacifist, or a bully and a coward? What is Estelle’s chaste and sinless surface really hiding? One thing becomes clear: They’re all perfectly chosen to torture each other.
Despite the strength of the women’s perfs, Xuereb’s tone varies inexplicably and wildly, and his delivery is often forced.
Krekan also succumbs to directorial indulgences. When the actors circle each other at the play’s end and tighten into an intertwined knot, the effect seems overly symbolic.
Technical elements are bare-bones, but well thought out.