When Bad Things Happen to Bad People

Without a doubt, fate led me to see in the same week the New Theatre's rendition of Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit and playwright William Inge's Natural Affection, produced by the Miami Actor's Studio. Though Sartre penned his work in 1944 and Inge in 1963, they share an almost uncanny host of similar elements. Both are essentially bleak views of how people make their own hells, with the plots based on the same situation: three incompatible souls forced to share cramped quarters, each one incapable of making concessions and therefore each headed for disaster.

Similarly, the problems with both productions lie in the material itself. To make a hellish existence believable to the audience, the writer must convey a sense of tedium, gloom, and misery. Such elements don't lend themselves to quick dramatic action or enthralling entertainment. In fact, the Inge play was such a failure when it opened on Broadway, it only ran for 36 performances. Many scholars believe that this major flop from the same man who had won the Pulitzer Prize for Picnic helped lead to Inge's suicide ten years later.

Sartre's work certainly has enjoyed greater success, especially among those who enjoy an intellectual challenge. Meant as a "thesis" or "problem" play (a form also embraced by Shaw and Ibsen), No Exit examines the author's existential view of the world. To Sartre, each man must reject church and state and become his own institution, accepting total responsibility for his actions. Fate and God are simply lame excuses for human cowardice and evil, existentialists insist, and in the playwright's vision of Hell, people must deal with the consequences of their choices not in the company of a Satan or his agents, but with other humans who have committed malicious acts. (There's no such thing as "sin" in existentialism.)

Three deceased people are ushered into a windowless room where the door rarely opens. Garcin, the editor of a pacifist newspaper, while proclaiming himself a man of peace and reason had abused his wife and deserted from the army -- because of cowardice, not idealism. Estelle is a vain mannequin who married for riches, kept a young lover, and drowned her husband's child because motherhood proved inconvenient. Finally, Inez, a mannish lesbian, delights in her sadistic nature and boasts that she drove both her female lover and the lover's husband to their deaths.

It's bad enough that these three appear forced to share eternity together; the topper is that each bears a personality trait that makes it impossible for them to stop torturing each other. Estelle must attract and then reject both Garcin and Inez to prove she is still attractive; Garcin must convince Inez that he is not a coward, since Estelle's shallow opinions mean nothing to him; and Inez must control everyone. Even when the unseen devil gives them a chance to escape by briefly causing the door to open, they don't. Their overblown egos and insecurities keep them trapped in this cycle of self-torment. "Hell is other people" says Sartre in the dialogue, but that's not the real truth implied by his play: Hell is ourselves.

As a work of art, No Exit would be better read at home than seen on a stage, just as Sartre's brilliant and equally desolate Nausea works best as a novel. With its excessive wordiness, scant action, and constant repetition of concepts, the play won't appeal to audiences who enjoy light farce or contemporary drama. However, Rafael de Acha does an impressive directorial job, moving the one-act along as quickly as possible. His staging is impeccable, the set by Robert Butcher is both spare and colorful, and the lighting design by Mikuni Ohmae changes subtly with the characters' moods.

There is a problem with the acting, however. Pamela Roza as Estelle and Lisa Friedman as the histrionic Inez appear to be performing in a different play from Kent Lantaff as Garcin. While Lantaff endows his role with all the realism and honesty he can inject into often florid monologues, Roza and especially Friedman adopt an affected manner and speech, coming dangerously close to hamming it up. Although I preferred to watch Lantaff's lower-keyed realism, I also wondered if all three characters adopting his simple, composed style would make watching No Exit tedious. As it is, I think the solution would be for Friedman to tone it down a bit and Lantaff to raise the emotional temperature just a bit higher.

Far more successful acting is delivered in the Miami Actor's Studio rendition of Natural Affection, brilliantly updated and directed by Ellen Davis. This cast offered some of the finest performances I've seen in South Florida, and an imagination on the part of the director I've rarely witnessed anywhere. Inge's vision of an earthly hell includes occupants who are not yet formally, physically dead, but who are living incarnations of contemporary angst. Sue Barker, a successful retail buyer, lives in a small Chicago flat with Bernie Slovenk, a gigolo with a wandering eye. He stays with plain Sue simply because she pays for the rent and his expensive silk suits. Sue craves Bernie's hand in marriage and will do anything to please the lout.

Into this dysfunctional relationship moves Sue's son Donnie, recently released by a harsh reform school. Donnie hides a fierce Oedipal complex, a terrifying temper, and the desire to please his mother only. Naturally, confining this trio to a one-bedroom apartment foreordains a messy collision.

They relate to each other like Sartre's self-torturing trinity of the condemned and confined. Neither Donnie nor Bernie can back down in their test of wills because of fierce macho pride; because Sue desires to be both wife and mother, she finds it impossible to choose between the two men. Unlike the characters in Sartre's piece, these folks can escape their prison, and so the inevitable tragedy involves not an eternity of emotional violence but a harsh act of physical brutality.

Prudencio Montesino as Bernie and Yasser Molerio as Donnie are riveting, capable as actors of revealing several layers of emotion at one time. Janet Raskin as Sue is equally effective in a less showy role. But the big-time applause here belongs to Ellen Davis, who took a slow, meandering play from 1963, beefed up the pace, and adapted the work -- via well-selected music connecting the scenes and a chilling finale -- to current urban crises. Rap has replaced rock as an anthem of frustration, and Donnie's ultimate choice seems derived right from today's headlines about sociopathic youth.

In our society of lost innocence, in which life often adopts a dull, desperate tone, Inge and, more so, Sartre, were well ahead of their times. (This is in contrast to Inge's earlier literary period that produced the now-dated Picnic.) Both present accurate pictures of the current human condition -- filled with emotional and physical agony, never-sated lust for self-gratification, and ultimately isolation in a hostile world. As bad as it may be living in today's hell, seeing it drawn out and picked apart on a stage is redundant, painful ,and sometimes downright boring. However, because both works also contain flashes of brilliance, they belong among the classics of dramatic literature. Whether they belong on your list of plays to attend is purely up to you.

Stage Notes
Just a little personal plug: I will be hosting my own show on the entertainment scene, called Spotlight, Monday through Friday at 9:00-10:00 a.m. The station is WSBH (1490-AM). You can call in, listen, or change the dial completely if you want to hear "Layla" again.


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