Turtle Shell Theater’s revival of No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre is a refreshing take on a classic existential piece. Maintaining the play’s core essence with a period setting, director Robert Haufrecht nevertheless captivates a modern audience by establishing blood-curdling conflict between characters. The resulting effect is a haunting portrayal of how our thoughts and actions have the potential to seal our fate, with little hope of escape.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, originally performed in Paris in 1944 just before France’s release from German occupation, continues to chill audiences with its nihilistic exploration of eternal confinement. Three characters, all aware of their mortal ends and prepared to enter whatever comes next, are led into a drawing room with no windows, doors, and permanent electric lighting. Waited on by a man known only as Valet (Etienne Navarre), these characters soon realize the futility of their situation, causing panic and desperation. For these three, past transgressions have all led them to a similar fate, together with no chance of escape.
Once a political journalist disliked and ill-respected by his colleagues, Joseph Garcin (Richard Hymes Esposito) enters the room first. At first impressed by the living arrangement and then disappointed by the lack of torture devices or dingy furnishings, he poses petty complaints to the Valet. While noticing Garcin’s obvious ploy to both retrieve additional information and also request another man’s company, the Valet nevertheless responds only with glib absolutes that neither inform nor reassure before promptly leaving. In these exchanges Navarre embodies the seasoned, smug servant, and his stone-cold presence creates comic contrast against Garcin’s increasing concern.
Inez (Mihaela Mihut) arrives second, a postal worker who “doesn’t care much for men.” An Eastern European native, Mihut has no problem easing into a French accent with precise pronunciation and syllable emphasis. Her slow, raspy line delivery makes the entire production all the more demonic. Often adhering to stage blocking that gives the audience a right-side profile, the sharp lines of her face, messy-on-purpose chignon, and angular body language all add to her character’s strong, direct dialogue.
With a roommate like Inez, Garcin’s faltering masculinity has little room to hide, and Inez notices this trembling fear despite his barking denial. A brash, aggressive woman in riding boots, dark trousers, and ruffled blouse, Inez stomps across the stage eager to take in every detail and establish a sense of all-knowing and extreme preparedness. Garcin at first tries to assume authority by explaining the room’s layout and boasting of his early arrival, but Inez soon takes over as alpha dog. Matched against Mihut’s strong performance, Esposito’s whiny, nasal tone and shrinking stage presence gives homage to Garcin’s complex insecurities. No drop of Sartre’s infamous realism has been neglected among these two, who match wits, scream, and then retreat in silence to opposite ends of the stage.
The final guest arrives soon after. A slim, attractive woman who married well to provide for her younger siblings after being orphaned at a young age, Estelle (Geraldine Johns) trots onto the stage with an erect posture and a proper British accent. Her snobbish pride and icy body language are the only barriers between her two roommates in such closed quarters. Coveted by both Garcin and Inez, Johns’s portrayal of Inez evokes sympathy with her taut, thin red lips and trembling blue eyes. In an instant she composes herself and transitions into a somber monologue concerning her loveless marriage. With Estelle onstage to compound the social and behavioral clashes once more, questions concerning sin, dignity, courage, and sex soon unravel, spiking drama and causing the plot to climax.
In a play that renders sin with sin, Sartre has constructed an intricate and fascinating world of suffering with No Exit. Director Robert Haufrecht plays up character conflict and pushes the envelope further with a brutal focus on sexual subtext, from Inez’s orientation to Estelle’s and Garcin’s infidelity. Scene designer Craig M. Napoliello sets the tone with convincing Second Empire duvets and a warm salmon-pink room that gives a primary sense of comfort before trapping its inhabitants with a locked door. Eric Nightengale provides the perpetual brightness as the light and sound designer, incorporating a bleached starkness for confrontational scenes. This, along with soft music during flashbacks, creates a sense of vulnerability and longing among the despairing characters. A stunning social commentary on war, social status, and sexuality, No Exit is our ticket to hell. Enjoy the ride.
No Exit (90 minutes; no intermission)
Turtle Shell Theater, Times Square Arts Center (300 West 43rd Street, 4th Floor)
Tickets (http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/85116): $20
Performances (through 12/6): Performances through 12/5 @ 8pm; Sunday 12/6 @ 6pm
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