People Watching

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Between the irritating travelers who cut in front of you to try to board the plane before their group number is called, the screaming babies and restless toddlers with their parents sitting indifferently by, and the drunken, sweaty men who plop into your private space in the hotel bar while you’re trying to nurse your gin and tonic in stony silence, those who travel for business like I do know exactly the meaning of “hell is other people”.  That’s the most famous line of Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic existentialist play No Exit about three people in hell doomed to spend eternity together in a small, crooked, locked room.  It’s a play that’s strangely incandescent yet ruthlessly biting, hilarious yet at the same time cynical and pessimistic.  It’s a play, then, I think, that’s totally up the alley of The Hypocrites and its hyperkinetic cultural savant of an Artistic Director, Sean Graney.  I enjoyed their staging of No Exit for what it was and I’ll enthusiastically recommend it to all.  I have to wonder, though, whether Graney’s tongue-in-cheek, undeniably hip, cultural potpourri of a production dilutes Sartre’s bite, making the play more of an intellectual sprint than a half-marathon, as it should have been.

The three people who are condemned to be each other’s eternal damnation are Garcin, a journalist executed for his ideology, who turns out to be a big coward; Estelle, a delicate socialite who turns out to be a ruthless user of men and a child killer to boot; and Inez, a sarcastic lesbian postal worker whose affair with her cousin’s wife led to his death.  They’re insecure, blathering, delusional (well, except for Inez who seems to have resigned herself to their fate the best), weak-willed, grating on each other’s nerves and the audience’s as well.  However, in The Hypocrites production, they are played attractively by a pretty attractive cast:  company members Robert MacLean as Garcin and Samantha Gleisten as Inez, and Erin Barlow as Estelle.  All three actors give excellent, watchable performances – maybe too watchable.  These three are cool kids – polished, fashionably-dressed, sexy, and very, very funny.  Spending time with them is less like hell than a really surreal dinner party, and trust me, they’re more fun and less scary than the denizens of my Orange County hotel bar.  I think the performances, in keeping with the feel and the point of view of the production, emphasize the wit and the relatability, and de-emphasize the dour, the cynicism, the melancholy, the wickedness of the human heart, which I think Sartre might have been more preoccupied with.

Graney directs the show in a zippy, frenetic manner that makes the 90 minute running time even shorter.  It’s very engaging.  And his fantastic visual and aural design aesthetic, always a mélange of influences, is in fine form in this show:  Kevin O’Donnell’s musical score includes a veritable pantheon of hip divaness, from Edith Piaf to Lady Gaga; Tom Burch’s marvelous set design includes a room painted in hot pink with a horizontal door and a resplendently naked male statue, who contributes significantly to a memorable opening curtain; Allison Siple’s costumes include a Napoleonic outfit for the Valet (a charming John Taflan), the sinister concierge of this hotel hell.  This is hip Sartre – more fabulous New York downtown art critic than angsty post-war French philosopher.  This is all well and good, and I would say represent an innovative interpretation of the play.  Graney always has a strong point of view, which you may or may not agree with, and he makes a night at his theater always interesting.  But this No Exit is so different from the tone, the style, the dark edginess of, say, Steppenwolf’s recent production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, a play that Sartre’s classic is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as, that you wonder what a more, uhmm, Sartrian approach would have looked like.  I’ve complained about Endgame as you know, but I also recognize that existential examinations are intellectually and emotionally grueling.  I think Graney has given us a hallway pass with this No Exit

No Exit is at the Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport, until July 11, 2010.

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4 Responses to “People Watching”

  1. Joel Says:

    ?? Francis — your review is very un-Francisco like. At one point, you indicate you will enthusiastically recommend, and yet you seem to wish it was a more (italicize) challenging (end italicize) piece. Puzzling! ??

  2. francis Says:

    “I enjoyed their staging of No Exit for what it was and I’ll enthusiastically recommend it to all.” The key phrase: “for what it was”. Joel, unlike other blogs, From the Ledge requires meticulous reading, like you would do for, oh I don’t know, trial briefs or depositions…in case there are any subtleties or nuances.

  3. francis Says:

    I don’t think this version of “No Exit” is Sartre-ian at all. It is some version, and whatever that is, it’s enjoyable.

  4. Joel Says:

    I think the pink walls distracted you…

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