“No Exit” at The Pearl Theatre Company (Closed Sunday March 30, 2014)

March 19, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
By Jean-Paul Sartre
Adapted from the French by Paul Bowles
Directed by Linda Ames Key
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Hope comes in the doing, not in the waiting.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

Cradeau, Inez, and Estelle – three war-weary Parisian compatriots – bear transgressions that serve as tropes for the horrors of the events surrounding World War II. Critics often have claimed that Sartre’s “No Exit” is not a war play; however, given the date of authorship and the autobiographical undercurrent of the play, such claims seem gratuitous at best. Though the sins of this hell-trapped trio pale against the backdrop of the atrocities of Hitler’s invasion of Europe, the Holocaust, and the Blitzkrieg, they land in hell – escorted by a Valet (Pete McElligott) – surprised to find no “thumbscrews, whips,” or other devices of torture. What they discover, however, is far worse.

The torture Cradeau (Bradford Cover), Inez (Jolly Abraham), and Estelle (Sameerah Luqmann-Harris) must endure for their eternal stint in the underworld is not imposed by their “captor;” their torture is self-inflicted as they rehearse their lives before death and inflicted on one another with unyielding ferocity. Each resident, after feigning ignorance of why he or she was in hell, eventually “comes clean” and confesses the transgressions that resulted in damnation. Under Linda Ames Key’s meticulous direction, the ensemble cast passionately portrays what it means to discover that “hell is other people.”

Doomed to an endless excursion “inside his head,” Cradeau rants about the difficulty he has putting up with himself after admitting to cheating on his wife “with a mullato girl” and mistreating his wife – this in addition to his admission of cowardice. The former journalist and writer is reduced to primal scream therapy to rid himself of his guilt as he is able to see the present actions of those who survive him. Bradford Cover skillfully peels away Cradeau’s layers of self-deception and cruelty and exposes the character’s tragic flaws.

Cradeau is soon joined in his hellish digs by two women: Inez the lesbian postal clerk who turned a woman against her husband (resulting in his death) and high-society Estelle who before her demise married an older man for his money, had an affair with a younger man, had a child with the younger man, and killed the child by throwing the child into a lake. Inez is intimately in touch with her cruel nature and Jolly Abraham handily portrays this character’s manipulative and conniving nature. Inez is comfortable seeing others suffer. Estelle eschews Inez’s romantic advances and prefers to attempt to seduce Cradeau. Sameerah Luqmann-Harris is the perfect seductive yet cautious Estelle who uses her mistakes in life as weapons in eternity.

“No Exit” successfully portrays the dilemma of life’s sometimes exit-less vicissitudes. Humanity manages to revisit hopelessness where fear itself is ineffective. Harry Feiner’s set encroaches on the action and on the audience with the help of Ann Wrightson’s eerie lighting and exposes the detritus strewn across the human landscape of suffering.

Existentialism raises rich questions in the minds of audiences. These are enduring questions essential to the health and survival of the human species and the planet they occupy. The question is not whether Cradeau will admit to his cowardice: the enduring question is whether cowardice is always a negative entity. The question is not whether Inez’s ability to manipulate the opinions of others is reprehensible: the enduring question is whether such manipulation has any positive outcome in negotiation. And the question is not whether Estelle was justified in having an affair: the enduring question is whether the nature of human relationships has been fully understood.

Ultimately, “No Exit” raises the troubling essential question whether humankind – eternally flying in the face of reason and decency – will continue to consign itself to a variety of hellish escapades with no exit possible. Sartre is a master at confronting his audience with the human realms of wickedness, shame, and fear and The Pearl has constructed a production which gives splendid reverence to the work of this existentialist master.