By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Ric Delgado
By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
Theater in South Florida tends to appear in bursts, with a spray of shows often opening on the same weekend. In the scuffle, many shows tend to get overlooked. In some instances, that's not so bad a consequence, but in the case of No Exit, now entering its final week at the Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach, it's tantamount to a crime. J. Barry Lewis's inspired, elegant production is so effective in finding the emotional, comedic, and philosophical nuances of Jean-Paul Sartre's daunting existential script that this 60-year-old play, performed by a first-rate cast, feels perfectly fresh and vital.
Sartre wrote this play during the Nazi occupation of Paris, a dark time indeed for Western civilization. The feel of that era, a morbid, hopeless claustrophobia, is very much in evidence. In the story, sardonic journalist Vincent Cradeau is shown into a bleak hotel suite by an aging bellboy. The windows are bricked up, the mirrors are missing, and the glaring lights have no off switch. Cradeau is not too surprised. He's dead, you see, and this must be what hell is like -- an endless stay in a tacky hotel room.
Cradeau is soon joined by Inez Serrano, a mannish lesbian, and Estelle Delaunay, a style-conscious socialite, both recently departed from the living world. All expected to meet torturers, not fellow residents. They don't want to get to know each other, but as they find they are locked in the suite, they decide to make the best of it. Soon, though, these restless, troubled souls begin getting on each other's nerves. Inez is attracted to Estelle, who turns to Cradeau for solace, but he rebuffs her. As all three dance this tarantella of desire and avoidance, they find they are able to glimpse visions of what things are like back in the lives they left. But while time seems to have stopped in their hotel Hell, on Earth life is whisking by at warp speed -- months, years pass within the space of mere moments.
A slow striptease of pretense ensues as the characters begin to reveal what brought them to this place of no escape. Cradeau was a Nazi collaborator and a cruel wife-abuser, carrying on an affair in her presence. Inez seduced a woman away from a sensitive young man, who killed himself. Estelle, a cross between Blanche DuBois and Lady MacBeth, reveals a horrible crime Lady MacBeth only dreamed of committing. But as they expose their souls, this doomed trio comes to the realization that their meeting wasn't mere chance. It's all part of a devilish scheme, as each of these characters is perfectly suited to tormenting the other two. "Hell is other people," declares Cradeau.
No Exit is one of those seminal modern classics that everyone admires and assiduously avoids. It's known as a dense, philosophical treatise about life and meaning and meaninglessness, the theatrical equivalent of cod liver oil. What a surprise, then, to find this Dramaworks production to be a tense, edgy drama filled with twists, turns, sexual heat, and sudden moments of wit, a combination that feels perfectly contemporary. The cast is exceptionally able, turning what could be dry material into a compelling power struggle. As Cradeau, William Hayes uses his sonorous voice and formidable stage presence to good effect, creating a self-aware intellectual condemned to doubt his deepest motivations. Nanique Gheridian is his match as the lustful, spiteful Inez, a seeming tough gal with inner torments of her own. But the production's most vivid portrayal comes from Margery Lowe as Estelle, the flighty socialite whose stylish demeanor masks a thoroughly lost soul. At first she's merely a silly neurotic -- her first complaint is that the shabby furniture in green and red clashes with her outfit. Then a more profound, frightening narcissism emerges. The room's lack of mirrors, even in her makeup kit, makes her increasingly jumpy. "When I can't see myself, I can't feel myself," Estelle confesses, her desperate need for validation sending her toward total disintegration. With a tremulous voice and darting, furtive body language, Lowe delivers a memorable performance, tracking Estelle's descent with heart-rending clarity.
The production is skillfully guided by J. Barry Lewis, who doesn't miss any opportunity for emotional impact. He makes dramatic use of the simplest moment -- even a door opening is given resonance and portent -- and he doesn't let all the highbrow talk upstage the three-way clashes. As a result, this No Exit has a headlong, breathless quality that's remarkably effective. A potentially airless talkathon instead becomes a steamy melodrama of sexual desire and painful self-discovery.
In its short history, the Palm Beach Dramaworks has earned a solid reputation as a thinking person's theater, continually challenging its growing audience with substantive scripts and solid productions. In a cacophonous culture cluttered with the trivial and the fraudulent, such efforts are often overlooked -- but they should not be.