STAGE: Go to Hell

Test Market’s No Exit offers little entry into Samuel Beckett Festival

Steve Bornfeld

Hell isn't this play about hell.

But purgatory wouldn't be a stretch.

No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre's classic, existential evergreen—which yielded the infamously ironic observation, "Hell is other people," encapsulating the thrust of this one-act in one sentence—kicks off Test Market's annual Samuel Beckett Festival of absurdist theater, which will also include Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby and Beckett's own Endgame.

But the only irony to appreciate about this translation is a work about Satan's playpen that's staged in a house of God (at Spring Meadows Presbyterian Church).

For No Exit—in which three corrupt souls are condemned to spend eternity psychologically torturing each other in a locked room in hell—to come alive, we must believe they're utterly irredeemable, so the suffering they inflict on one another is painfully authentic, emphasizing Sartre's point that the worst hell is the one people create for themselves in life, then can't outrun in the afterlife.

But as directed in an earnest but enervating style by Ernest Hemmings (who plays hell's "valet" in blackface, a bewildering dramatic choice—more on that later), the behavioral underpinnings of the piece feel artificial and false, further undercut by flawed performances.

No emotional pain, no perceptual gain.

As they are escorted, one by one, by the valet into the shabby, red-walled room with merely a sofa each for physical comfort, Garcin (James Perham), Inez (Nicole Brustard) and Estelle (Francine Gordon) notice it is absent the instruments of torture and fiery pit they expected in Lucifer's lair.

They're simply saddled with who they were, who they'll eternally be, and each other: Garcin, a callous husband, adulterer and coward, a deserter who was shot 12 times; Inez, a cruel, taunting lesbian postal clerk who admits leading a life of mental sadism toward her lovers, draining them with what Sartre calls her "vampire lust"; and vain Estelle, who snared an older man for his money, took a young lover, bore his child, then threw it in a lake, unwilling to be bothered.

None are remotely remorseful, a threesome tailored to eternally exasperate one another.

Sartre stuffs No Exit with abundant symbolism. The unassuming room is itself torturous, not because of what it has, but what it lacks: no mirrors (do we self-centered creatures even exist if we can't see our own reflections?), no windows (do we care to see beyond our own selfish concerns?), no beds or darkness, with lights that never shut off, making sleep impossible, or as Garcin describes it, "life without a break" from himself or the women, since the door won't open from the inside. There is an ornamental statue, but rather than providing beauty as a form of respite, it's downright ugly.

Inez lusts after indifferent Estelle, who desperately desires disinterested Garcin, who, in a monumental act of self-delusion, is set on proving his nobility to the mocking Inez, who'll have none of it. She's the most brutally honest, acknowledging she deserves her fate, and never letting Garcin's or Estelle's excuses for their execrable earthly behavior pass for truth—she's Sartre's ultimate mouthpiece. Inez never takes her accusatory eyes off Garcin as, unnerved, he gives in and tries to make love to Estelle, but can't. No one finds satisfaction here: 'Round and 'round they go, forever and ever, lashing each other in an unbroken circle of torment.

This is despairing, venomous—and juicy—stuff. But relationships don't relate well and symbolism doesn't symbolize much without effective character development.

As Sartre's literal reality check against which his hopeless worldview plays out, Inez is the pivot point. But, though a strong stage presence, Brustard, dressed black-on-black, plays anger by spitting barely enunciated words through gritted teeth, turning what she says—what we need to hear to comprehend the characters' shifting connections toward each other—tiresome and all too tempting to tune out.

Perham's Garcin, the most conflicted of the three, highlights the chasm between "acting" and "being." His anguish feels affected, depriving us of the opportunity to not merely watch, but experience the journey with him. Gordon inhabits Estelle's stunning selfishness and self-love, strutting in a pale-green gown, pearls, bracelet and brooch, but doesn't quite capture the demons that would drive her as a child murderess.

And Hemmings' blackface valet is a puzzle. To what end? Initial visual shock and scattered giggles, setting a comic tone that the remainder of the production rarely approaches as his character recedes? Adding an irrelevant absurdist touch to what is already a masterpiece of absurdity?

Sadly, this heavenly material about Hades is rendered depressingly earthbound. Exiting No Exit, I had to wonder: Does hell hath much fury for a classic botched?

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