Regional Reviews: St. Louis
"No Exit wouldn't have wasted our time in its headlong rush to expose the meaningless folly of mankind, like all those lesser shows," disappointed critics always seem to say.
Or, "No Exit still has the power to stare unblinkingly into the abyss of your vanity, and your pride, setting aside all your foolish notions of humanity. Why can't you be more like your older brother No Exit?"
We might as well be saying "No Exit wouldn't have wrapped the family SUV around that tree on prom night." There's just no escape from No Exit in the family tree of existential drama. It's become the elephant in the room, for every modern writer who paints his or her own version of Hell.
Bess Moynihan directs this newest version, in a stylish new translation at the Chapel Theatre, on the west side of Forest Park, for the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. And right away the atmosphere makes the soul itch, as we sit down, arena-style, around an elegant parlor. One by one the characters enter, welcomed by a stony valet, as they cling to the last memories of the lives they've left behind. And as usual, the play begins after the lights go down, and then come up again. But when they did come up, I suddenly wondered, "what did I do to end up here?"
The very fine actors on stage seem less surprised at their fate. Shane Signorino manages another complete transformation as Garcin, a South American journalist and ruthless Casanova; Sarah Morris is Inês, a postal worker and defiant lesbian (the actress has utterly obliterated any trace of her past life as a "manic pixie dream girl"); and Rachel Tibbetts is Estelle, a thoughtless, wealthy young woman who seems to have learned all her manners and movement from the movies of the 1940s. And, thanks to director Moynihan, it's a triangle that never stops spinning.
But every haughty pretense of the three falls apart, again and again. And it's almost as if Sartre had anticipated the curse of long space voyages, where everyone on board a spaceship is doomed to end up hating everyone else. Beyond that (and worse than space-hate), factions emerge and fade awayleaving each of the three characters mired in the anguish of the outsider. In its stark simplicity, No Exit is everything that's wrong with the human condition. Alyssa Ward wrote the new translation for this production, a sleek unobtrusive update heightening the self-deception of its characters. In this version, Inês call it "a self-service Hell," where the victims must pay for the privilege of torturing themselves.
But would you bring a date?
You should. The debates spawned by this 90-minute play will be fantastic: is our love of our own artifice, or of our own powerful impact on others, the Hell we must force upon ourselves? If Hell is "other people," as Garcin laments, can Heaven be any better? And how many times a day do we rediscover a fresh Hell, exactly like this?
Ms. Morris' Inês quickly sniffs out the entire room on her first arrival, like a feral cat; Ms. Tibbetts' Estelle makes her vainest proclamations seem important with a dash of Bette Davis posing; and Mr. Signorino's Garcin is gutted like a fish to find his only appeal in this afterlife is as a sex object, himself. Who knew that hopeless existentialism could be such an indictment of personal style itself?
No Exit, through September 1, 2018, at the Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive (immediately south of Wydown Blvd. at Skinker Blvd.), St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.slightlyoff.org.