By Jean-Paul Sartre
Directed by Brian S. Kraszewski
At the Mobtown Theatre at Meadow Mill through Feb. 11
Garcin has been left alone, and he’s not sure what to do with himself. He twitches his nose, rubs his face, adjusts his suit, attempting to look relaxed at the prospect of having nothing to do and failing miserably. It’s a lot to stomach: The valet (a wonderfully cold Rachel Boss) has just deposited him in his empty room in Hell, and there he sits, no books, no newspaper, no company, no prospect of sleep, a vague expectation of torture, and a blank slate of forever. Will Carson as Garcin is so convincing that one could almost imagine a whole (short) play constructed out of tiny actions like this, his character slowly melting from confident to bored to anxious to hysterical, cut short by the realization that his eyes no longer produce tears. It’s wholly uncomfortable and entirely mesmerizing.
Carson’s silent monologue ends when the valet re-enters, this time bringing with her Ines (Melissa O’Brien), who asks no questions and slyly settles in for the ride. Ines and Carson are later joined by Estelle (Rachael Lee Rash), clad in a fancy gown, fingers pinching at a clutch. Each person is marked with a dash of color, as though a paint can had fallen on their shoulders: Carson green, Ines wine, Estelle sky blue. Three simple chairs, nailed to the floor, are painted matching colors, and as Estelle enters, the audience can plainly see that Carson is sitting in what should be Estelle’s chair.
No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 existential exercise, uses what is now a fairly familiar trope: Stick strangers together in a small place and a sociological experiment will inevitably ensue. The three strangers begin to share bits of who they are whether they mean to or not. Carson requests silence, insisting that the best way for the three of them to manage eternity together is for each to remain in his or her respective place, pretending the others are not there. The girls can’t handle the quiet, Estelle searching desperately for a mirror to adjust her makeup, Ines using the delicate debutante as a target for manipulation.
Slowly, details of their lives start to emerge. Carson is an army deserter who had no shame in allowing his wife to serve coffee to him and his mistresses. Ines is a lesbian postal worker who stole her cousin’s wife. Estelle, seemingly the most innocent of the bunch, has perhaps the darkest secrets, centering around an older husband and a younger beau. Each can eavesdrop on those they’ve left behind, but as their contacts on Earth begin to move on—time moves in a wholly different way here—the three begin to lose touch with their living selves and slowly realize that all they have left is what is happening in the tiny room.
With next to nothing in the way of sound, lighting, or set—though what is there is well done—the responsibility of carrying the play is left almost entirely on the shoulders of the actors and the ways in which they interact. The most volatile relationship, and the most fun to watch, is the one between Ines and Garcin. O’Brien stalks around the stage like a tiger, confident and comfortable in her role as a self-described bitch. Ines is fully aware of her own cruelty, and it drives Garcin, who wishes to prove he’s not a coward, mad. Carson, for his part, keeps up the tics that betray his coolness, fiddling with his suit jacket and biting his nails in a way that belies his insistence on his own bravery. Estelle, the last to join the trio and a bit of an outsider in her aloofness, throws herself at Garcin, seeking to define herself through a man, and Rash portrays her desperation vividly.
In what is an oddly effective touch, the play features a 10-minute intermission in which the actors remain onstage and in character. It provides a useful moment of reflection: Garcin has just once again asked the ladies for quiet, the lights on the stage dim, and the three characters lounge in their seats, pick their nails, cross and uncross their legs, generally looking as though they are waiting for something. The actors are, of course: They’re waiting for you to get back to your seats. But if you stay and watch, the reality of the characters’ situation truly sinks in: they’ve nothing to do and nowhere to be, and never will again. The interlude adds a gravity to the second half that would not have been there, and is a demonstration of this production’s subtle attention to detail. Mobtown Player’s No Exit is a solid, effective interpretation of a difficult play.