Absent scenery, with a character excised and fiercely performed, this stripped down taut revival of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit is quite compelling and faithful to the spirit of the original work. An operatic prologue is another novel flourish.
It is presented by the Fusion Theatre which was founded by the Irish actress Eilin O’Dea in 2016 with the “concept that synthesizing the worlds of theater and opera can provide the ultimate theatrical experience.” Ms. O’Dea is truly the mastermind of this enticing production.
Working from Lewis Galantière’s translation, O’Dea’s adaptation cuts the character of the valet who interacts with the three main figures. Instead, the trio are forced to confront each other directly. This alteration is seamless and heightens the play’s effect.
The stage directions specify Second Empire décor. Instead, on one downstage area of the small theater, scenic designer Dahlia Barakat starkly provides only three black modern chairs side by side, circled on the floor by a string of bright red lights. A fun result is that characters refer to the chairs’ differing colors. An unseen ornament on the unseen mantelpiece prominently figures.
On this confined playing area, O’Dea who also directed has the barefoot cast up close and in each other’s faces interlaced with strategic movements. They enter abruptly through a door, sometimes stand on the chairs and bang against the walls. O’Dea’s staging on this constricted terrain is impressive.
Further echoing the grand jack of all trades tradition of Orson Welles, O’Dea plays the part of Inez, the manipulative lesbian postal clerk. With her Irish accent, flowing dark hair and abundant charisma O’Dea is bewitching. Laughing, taunting and conveying slyness and despair through her rich vocal cadences she drives the play with Pinteresque brio.
The blonde and alluring Maria Swisher is a formidable Estelle. Haughty and sensuous, Ms. Swisher’s dulcet tones capture the privileged essence of this adulterous society woman who murdered her illegitimate baby to conceal her liaison.
Bearded, thin and having a haunted mien, the commanding Brian Heuer is like one of Graham Greene’s burnt-out cases as Garcin. This duplicitous journalist and philandering husband is personified by Mr. Heuer’s sad-eyed facial expressions, melodious enunciation and put-on pomposity. Heuer, Swisher and O’Dea’s rousing chemistry is palpable as they spar, make sexual overtures to each other and settle into communal resignation of their fates.
Throughout, recorded music at a low volume subtly commenting on the actions is heard. The actors are dressed in Ms. Barakat’s simple costume design of contemporary garments in shades of gray, blue and black that artfully suggests a netherworld dimension. That’s magnified by Madeleine Kasemichael’s lighting design which perpetually shifts from bright to dim.
Upstage to the side on view is the piano that Yumi Hashimoto wonderfully played on at the beginning. O’Dea powerfully sings “Sola, Perduta Abbandonata” from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” Samuel Barber’s “Four Songs (Nocturne)” is the composition Swisher entrancingly performs. A ragged stop and start rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is Heuer’s contribution. This mini-recital’s selections represent each of the characters transitioning from life to death and makes for a unique opening.
“Hell is other people” is No Exit’s famous summation. It was first performed in Paris in 1944, John Huston directed the American premiere on Broadway in 1946 and the London debut that year was directed by Peter Brook. Sartre’s conceit was and remains intriguing, that in Hell there is no need for flames or horror. Just lock three people in a room for eternity and they will torture themselves with their behavior as they psychologically unravel. There is also the poignant device of them watching the world going on without them, connoting the passage of time.
No Exit’s enduring fascination is affirmed and reinvigorated by this audacious incarnation.
No Exit (through April 20, 2019)
The Theater at 244, 244 West 54th Street, 10th Floor, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-589-2426 or visit http://www.fusiontheatrenyc.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission