There's these three people trapped in a room: Garcin -- a thorough cad; the relentlessly vain Estelle; and the exceptionally dour Inez. Inez is in love with Estelle, who needs Garcin's attention to feel whole, and Garcin craves the good opinion of anybody but these two to be a "real man." This is the set-up for Jean-Paul Sartre's modern classic No Exit.
If I stop and think about it, I could swear I've been to a few parties at Monsieur Sartre's house.
But No Exit, on stage here via Cup-A-Jo Productions, is far from a party. The room in which this troika has been trapped is, in fact, hell, and these three are destined to spend eternity together.
The play's "joke" is the answer to the question Garcin asks when he first enters the room: "Where's the instruments of torture?" Sartre's immensely satisfying premise is that each will serve as the other's punishment. No fire or brimstone, no demons with little pitchforks -- just them and their personalities and their problems, until the end of time. As Sartre famously points out toward the end of the play: "Hell is other people."
As someone whose idea of good night is one spent lying in bed listening to Doris Day albums, I can only respond with a hearty "Amen, J.P.!" If there were only two people in the room, they might be able to form an alliance. But stick three people anywhere and you'll eventually end up with two sides. Sartre had a great deal of theatrical fun reconfiguring the various allegiances and shifting enmity. The play, true, might be just this side of precious, but Sartre has the good sense to keep it swift and short, running no longer than 90 minutes.
Cup-a-Jo Productions trots out its version in the gallery of the Garfield Artworks. Thanks to Everett Lowe's intelligent and understated direction, there's a quiet but forceful integrity to this production.
I'm not sure whether it's this version or just the fact that I'm getting older, but a really interesting aspect of this production is its focus on a new dimension of misery. Lowe and company certainly don't shortchange Sartre's message; but, as Condi Rice might say, there's augmentation. Hell may be other people, but it's one person as well. The journey the characters take involves stripping away the lies they've told about themselves, and the justifications used to cover their most egregious flaws. This final hell finds them, for their first time in their lives, fully aware of their own rotten humanity.
My sole complaint is the stilted (and uncredited) translation used for this production; occasionally the characters sound like they're in a fussy Richard Wilbur/Molière translation. But even that is almost negligible, thanks to the solid and sly performances turned in by Gregory Caridi as Garcin, Joanna Lowe's Inez, and Jaime Slavinsky as Estelle. It's meant as the highest praise for me to say that they really are quite miserable.
No Exit continues through Jan. 20. Garfield Artworks, 4931 Penn Ave., Garfield. 412-334-3126.