Avenue Productions and Hellcat

Theatre Company

“Hell is other people.” No dramatist ever summed up a work more succinctly than Jean-Paul Sartre did in that line from No Exit. In this 1944 one-act, Sartre replaced outmoded tortures of the damned such as brimstone and flagellation with an existentialist vision. If anything, it’s more cruel–a human hell where the accumulated failures of a lifetime are endlessly enacted.

Sartre’s three protagonists are damned for not having lived authentically. They never exercised their freedom of choice and gave in to the meaninglessness of contemporary life. Sartre’s poetically just hell is where these newly dead must explore ad nauseam the same dead ends (or “false positions”) that they stumbled into while alive.

Garcin, Inez, and Estelle–a pacifist journalist, post-office clerk, and snobbish coquette–are led by a sardonic Valet into a room furnished in a hideous Second Empire style. They are strangers, but not for long. In this stuffy chamber there are no windows, no darkness, no need to sleep, and, worst of all, no mirrors. Infernally enough, the inmates must reflect each other.

Of course these undead–Estelle delicately prefers to say “absentees”–become their own torturers. Selfish and literally selfless–unreal to themselves, they’re real only to their roommates–each has a crime to conceal and finally confess.

Though he imagines himself an idealistic intellectual and courageous liberal, Garcin systematically abused his wife; he also fled his country during a crisis, only to be shot for desertion. An amoral fortune huntress, Estelle lived only to be admired; a man killed himself because she killed the baby he desired. Inez calls herself “a live coal in others’ hearts”; on earth she lived with her female lover and her male cousin, and died when the lover, grieving over the harm they did the man, killed them both. But Inez makes no excuses: incarnating existentialism, she declares, “It’s what one does that shows the stuff one’s made of.”

As they fall back on silence or try to envision their earthly survivors, Sartre stirs up his snake pit. Inez wants to possess Estelle to prove her power and satisfy her lust. Estelle wants Garcin to make her feel desired again. Garcin wants Inez, who fully understands evil and shame, to assure him that he was not a coward. Of course none tells the others what they want to hear, only what they want to deny. Perversely, they learn, as Inez exclaims, “We’re–inseparables!” When the door to their chamber opens, they’re afraid to leave. Garcin’s final words suggest the pain yet to come: “Well, well, let’s get on with it.”

Though a classic part of modern theater, No Exit is seldom performed. Yet it’s a surprisingly persuasive melodrama; its conflicts may be contrived and forced, but the desperation behind these convenient confessionals is real. Though only 75 minutes long, the play’s claustrophobia is as suffocating as that of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, and its depiction of the hereafter strongly recalls the cemetery scene in Our Town, where earth time rushes by much faster than afterlife time. But only Sartre could ram home the forbidding truth: “One always dies too soon–or too late. And yet one’s whole life is complete at that moment. . . . You are–your life, and nothing else.”

This staging by the Hellcat Theatre Company (in association with Avenue Productions) needs work, particularly the sloppy set. Sartre specifies a Second Empire drawing room; Hellcat’s looks like a half-finished rec room, with crudely unfinished and unpainted plywood doors. The dialogue requires three couches and repeatedly alludes to one of them as green (because it clashes with Estelle’s blue dress), but Hellcat has come up with two blandly brown 50s divans and has given Estelle a tattered white party dress to wear. Actors’ surroundings should never flagrantly contradict their lines.

If some things have been left out, director Chris Cole has thrown in other things Sartre never intended. He has the tuxedoed Valet (Curtis Osmun, imitating a game-show host) hover behind the scene, diabolically cheering on the proceedings, mouthing the inmates’ lines, and creaking across the floorboards. His overreactions are irritating, but his intrusion also violates Sartre’s thesis. These characters provide their own manipulation. Their behavior is not predestined, just–given who they were in life–predictable. (Yes, there is an allusion to their being watched, but Sartre didn’t mean it literally.)

Fortunately, the actors (in ragged clothes and death’s-head makeup straight out of Beckett) don’t betray the play. F. David Roth, as Garcin (curiously pronounced incorrectly as “garcon” by everyone), seethes with defensive panic, though he hasn’t built the part much beyond that. The night I saw it, he also left out the key line “Hell is other people.” Laura Goltz makes a fearful and forceful Inez, but she lacks range–she needs to push her performance beyond a formulaic frenzy if she’s to suggest the sources of her character’s self- loathing.

Last and best, Megan Vaughan as the flighty Estelle gives a richly right, script-saving performance. She captures not only Estelle’s pathetic airs and graces–her tawdry attempt to keep up an appearance she can no longer see–but also her heartsick discovery that all along she inspired far more love than she ever enjoyed.