Ever wonder what hell might be like? In Jean Paul Sartre's "No Exit," as faithfully produced by the new Alternative Repertory Theatre in Santa Ana, it amounts to a small, suffocating room inhabited by three small, suffocating people.
They torment themselves and each other in a daisy chain of recrimination and anger. Nothing much really happens; there are no searing blazes or howling torturers, only mental anguish in a depressingly ordinary environment.
By choosing the 1943 existential classic as its inaugural production, the theater has made an uncompromising statement about its goals: No fluffed-up Neil Simon comedies here, thank you, and forget those pallid musical revivals. ART, at the risk of putting itself in theater hell, hopes it can find a steady community audience that wants to be challenged on a regular basis.
"No Exit" is a good first choice, a document of channeled thought and a testament to Sartre, one of the giants of modern philosophy. It's a seminal piece of work.
As a dramatic vehicle, though, it can be dense, talky, difficult--and tiresome as a sermon. ART tries with its program notes to set us on the right path. We get an introductory quote from Sartre describing the theater as an "austere, moral, mythic and ceremonial" place of ideas. Then there's a primer on existentialism that capsulizes the philosophy's main elements.
But when it comes to the production itself, ART takes a sink-or-swim approach. The audience is on its own from the first introspective moan of dialogue. Director Patricia Terry leaves the play unadorned and resolutely straightforward. Sartre said he wanted "No Exit" to have a spare, eviscerated quality, and he gets it here.
The approach is so true to Sartre that the production often has a deadened, "read through" feel to it and sometimes seems more of a dialectic exercise than anything else. But at other times, the actors inhabit their characters and bring insights to the play that makes it more involving.
Moving warily through Robert Sternberg's cramped, minimalist set (just three couches surrounded by a jerry-built wood frame) are Estelle (Amy Larson), Inez (Cindy Hanks) and Garcin (Greg Atkins). They look like decent, middle-class folks. It's only when they begin to question their destiny that we see what has brought them to this bleak place.
Inez has committed suicide, a forgiveable existential act but an unpardonable religious sin. Estelle has murdered her child. Garcin's greatest transgression has been a life of moral cowardice. They alternately rant over and meditate on their dilemmas, doomed by memory to relive every trespass.
In the most poignant of the roles, Larson is able, at times, to communicate Estelle's paralyzing guilt. She is less successful, however, when it comes to convincing us that she has accepted the punishment for her crime.
There is more equanimity in Atkins' Garcin. Even a coward can have a touch of nobility, and Atkins gives Garcin that grace. By admitting his failings and, finally, trying to comfort Estelle, Garcin almost rises above himself.
But always hovering over his near-triumph is Inez, who stands as the vindictive conscience of the three. The character is infused with rage and heartache: There aren't any comfortable rides through this hell, not with Inez around.
"No Exit" itself is no easy trip. It may be confounding (and, yes, boring) to those unaccustomed to avant-garde theater, but its demands also offer some payoffs. As exhausting and claustrophobic as this production is, it can also--because of its very intelligence--be expansive and liberating.
"NO EXIT" An Alternative Repertory Theatre production of Jean Paul Sartre's drama. Directed by Patricia Terry. With Greg Atkins, Cindy Hanks, Amy Larson and Loretta Beaumont. Sets by Robert Sternberg. Lighting by David Palmer. Costumes by Karen Weller. Plays Thursday--Saturday through Dec. 20 at 8 p.m. at 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana. Tickets: $8 to $10. (714) 836-7929.