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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
Cradeau dismisses the suggestion as laughable, but she's not entirely wrong.
Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, directed by Linda Ames Key at the Pearl Theatre Company (using Paul Bowles's translation), charmingly grapples with heavy existential questions by skipping ahead to the afterlife. In hell, Cradeau and Inez are soon joined by a third companion, Estelle (Sameerah Liqmaan-Harris), and they quickly realize that being spared physical torture might not be as sweet a deal as it seems if it means having to spend eternity in each other's company.
The play, written in the aftermath of WWII and Sartre's experience as a POW, focuses on how the characters reflect on their lives and interact with one another. It's easy to see why Sartre would be interested in exploring the relationships that can arise from confinement with no certain end in sight, though the play doesn't exactly recreate his experience. Here, he places one man in the company of two women (one of whom is a lesbian), setting up a triangular arrangement of desire.
To call this a "love triangle" would be inaccurate. In many cases, desire in No Exit is conflated on some level with sex, but usually not love. Estelle lusts after Cradeau physically and Cradeau becomes fixated on convincing Inez that he wasn't a coward in his life, while Inez's affection for Estelle is more ambiguous (meanwhile, she also has a track record of getting a rush out of seducing women away from their male lovers).
The play is mostly devoted to exploring this triangle—the pleasure is more in the journey than the destination—and so, above all else, the success of the show hangs on the chemistry between the three stars. Luckily, Abraham, Cover, and Liqmaan-Harris have created characters with a dynamic that is multi-layered and fun to watch. The antagonism between them ranges from playful to downright cruel, and the performances are as humorous as they are devastating.
The balance between comic and tragic is, in many ways, what defines this play. There's a delightful absurdity to these characters' situation, but Sartre quickly reminds us that No Exit is indeed set in hell, and the three have each earned a place there. Harry Feiner's set reinforces the tragic/comic juxtaposition nicely, surrounding the room (which feels like a doctor's waiting area that's trying too hard to put its occupants at ease) with a wall of discarded and decaying worldly possessions—reminders of what hell's occupants miss and regret about their lives.
There do seem to be sincere regrets here, though they might be as much of committing an ill deed as simply getting caught doing it (here, the cast again proves strong in embracing nuanced characterizations). Perhaps even more powerfully, there is fear. The initial moments of relief upon arrival in an unexpectedly painless hell quickly fade away when the characters come to understand what actually awaits them for eternity.
The play's dark elements become increasingly darker as the characters grapple with this forced intimacy that may also be their last hope for any sort of human connection— as well as the question of if they can ever hope for anything better, or just different.
As the lightness that characterized the start of the play seems to have faded completely, the final moments bring it right back, with an edge of lunacy injected in. It's a great way to end No Exit, masterfully executed by Keys and the actors alike. And—if I may offer the strangest compliment I've ever given to a play—it will make you appreciate the theater's exits (located to the left and rear of your seat) more than you ever thought possible.