The characters of Jean-Paul Sartre’s iconic 1944 one-act No Exit are in Hell. But at American Repertory Theatre they appear to be still negotiating the River Styx on a raft. In Jerry Mouawad’s ingenious production (at the Loeb Drama Center through January 29), the tight piece of Hades real estate occupied by Garcin, Inez, and Estelle — evildoers all who may yet, in Sartre’s philosophy, exercise moral choice — is a 17-foot square raised three feet off the ground that tips and tilts in relation to the actors’ movements. Hell is not only other people; it’s other people shifting.
Both an apt visual metaphor and a heck of a stunt, Mouawad’s carefully choreographed conception adds interest to the famed but rarely performed play, which, with its trio of strangers functioning as one another’s judges and torturers, is realization-heavy but talky, studied, and static. It may serve as an effective 90-minute introduction to the basics of Being and Nothingness, but in some ways it’s like A Christmas Carol devoid of jollity or chance of redemption. Mouawad’s treatment — which calls to mind the scales of justice and a teeter-totter as well as the rocking of a boat — turns it into a balancing act that drives home both the characters’ mutual dependency and the abrupt shifts of power among them. It also heightens what there is of drama, as when Will LeBow’s Garcin and Paula Plum’s Inez retreat to the back of the platform, drawing it to the floor and catapulting Karen MacDonald’s Estelle to a sort of precipice from which she makes the callous, chilling confession of what it was that brought her to the Underworld.
And how satisfying it is to discover that ART veterans LeBow, Plum, and MacDonald have no Gerald Ford problems negotiating the shifting platform and acting up a Sartrean storm at the same time. This trio bore beneath the words to capture human wretchedness at war with human ego. Mouawad missteps a bit with that hellish concierge, the Valet played by Remo Airaldi, making him musical and a bit maniacal as he patrols the sidelines. But LeBow’s Garcin, a pacifist executed for running from a war, is a man bullying and yet haunted by his own cowardice. MacDonald’s vain baby killer Estelle, hiding behind a raucous come-hither veneer, evokes as much sympathy as contempt. And Plum’s avowedly “hard-headed” lesbian Inez, who got to hell by way of a dual suicide, is alternately tentative and aggressive, putting a knife-sharp edge on her giddy giggle.
Hell may be other people, but sometimes it’s a matter of “Is that a pitchfork in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” In his 1782 epistolary novel Les liaisons dangereuses, Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos chronicles the diabolical bedroom manipulations of “virtuosos of deceit” the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. In their gilded war room, sex is no romantic doily but a power tool worthy of Black and Decker. Laclos was a career military officer whose sole claim to literary fame is this one scandalous novel. But like the loaves and fishes, it has multiplied into a feast that includes five movies, a ballet, and British playwright/screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s coldly elegant 1985 stage adaptation (the basis for the 1988 film that starred John Malkovich, Glenn Close, and Michelle Pfeiffer), in which the heavy trod of the French Revolution can be heard in the wings. In the original Royal Shakespeare Company staging, all the world was a gleaming boudoir full of unmade beds and drawers extruding lingerie. By contrast, the Huntington Theatre Company’s opulent revival (at the BU Theatre through February 5) offers chandeliers that glister and candles that glimmer, creating a romantic, mannered atmosphere through which the play’s savagery nonetheless peeks.