ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER THE THEATER
As staged by Linda Ames Key, Paul Bowles’ adaptation of Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, a play that imagines three individuals’ hell as being trapped in a room together for all eternity, succeeds less as a conventional show and more as performance art: Ms. Key really lets us feel the tedium and claustrophobia of being stuck in a room with disagreeable strangers and no exit. The only detractions from the success of this hypothetical experience-piece are Sartre’s profound script and the occasionally entertaining performances. As a traditional work of theater however, Ms. Key’s effort suffers from the same assortment of problems that plague so many foreign adaptations: Actors have only a superficial understanding of their characters and their performances want for lack of nuance and emotional force.
A valet (Pete McElligott) brings a man into what looks like the living room of a hotel suite. Its decor is modern and can almost be called stylish, except it’s not; it’s pretentious and subtly jarring (excellent work by scenic designer Harry Feiner). The man’s name is Cradeau (Bradford Cover) and he is dead; he knows this, and he also knows he is in Hell. But he will not be roasted on a spit or have his fingernails pulled out. His eternal suffering will be at the hands of two women, a lesbian named Inez (Jolly Abraham) and the avaricious man-eating nitwit Estelle (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris), whom the valet ushers in a short time later. But not to worry, Cradeau will give as good as he gets. In fact, as they soon figure out, each one of the three will be the instrument of the others’ torture.
While the performers, especially Mr. Cover, do well with the lighter moments—when their showmanship skills come more into play—they fail to make the weighty sections believable. Unable to make the characters their own, their renditions look presentational and false. Watching No Exit one might be tempted to conclude that Ms. Key, with her directing, translates Sartre’s big ideas into big gestures and big voices on the part of the actors. However, without the proper layering, these feel empty and hollow. It’s possible this superficial acting is somehow part of Ms. Key’s conceit, but that doesn’t make watching it any more interesting.
A colleague remarked to me once that plays should be seen and not read. I would add that they should be seen when done well. In the case of No Exit at the Pearl, you’re ultimately better off reading the script.
photos by Al Foote III
The Pearl Theater Company
The Pearl Theater, 555 West 42nd Street
scheduled to end on March 30, 2014
for tickets, call (212) 563-9261 or visit Pearl Theater