“Why, [you’re] the torturer, of course,” Inez (Jolly Abraham) says to Cradeau (Bradford Cover) as she enters Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” He says that this is “too comic for words,” but of course he is her torturer just as she is his. Sartre’s underworld, after all, is not comprised of the burning, naked bodies of Memling’s “The Last Judgment” or the grinning demons of Bouguereau’s “Dante and Virgil in Hell.” It is a Borgesian labyrinth of hallways and rooms and endless conversation where one is forced to live with one’s eyes open, where this lucidity is turned both on oneself and on others. Cradeau, a reporter who collaborated with the German occupiers (“No Exit“ premiered one month before the liberation of France), insists he has been damned for his womanizing and not his cowardice. Estelle (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris), a high-class socialite, denies guilt of any kind before finally confessing that she murdered a baby she bore by her lover. Only Inez, a lesbian postal worker responsible for the death of a man married to the woman she loved, admits that she is right where she belongs. ”I’m rather cruel,” she tells her cellmates. ”I can’t get on without making people suffer.” It should be no surprise, then, that “No Exit“ is most famous for Cradeau’s declaration, “Hell is other people.”
Before the play begins, an announcer informs us that the world of “No Exit“ is a deadly one—especially to those who forget to turn off their cell phones. It’s a lame joke that is uncharacteristic of the Pearl’s unwaveringly intelligent dedication to classic revivals, but unfortunately it augurs what is to come: a shockingly mediocre production, one that steamrolls over Sartre’s menace and humor with a persistent flatness that is almost impossible to account for. Both Ms. Abraham and Mr. Cover have demonstrated a breadth of talent in their years at the Pearl, and most pertinent to this case are their superb performances in Ionesco’s absurdist Bald Soprano. Here, however, Ms. Abraham sleepwalks through her performance, never doing much more than clearly enunciating her lines; and there is a transparent deliberateness to all Mr. Cover’s actions—he is particularly embarrassing to watch when he fakes a nervous tic. Ms. Luqmaan-Harris, wearing an atrocious blonde wig, does little to mediate the tedium.
Director Linda Ames Key is new to the Pearl, and perhaps her unfamiliarity with their actors is partially responsible for the failure of “No Exit.” Furthermore, as the kind of ur-text of the Theatre of the Absurd, it can occasionally feel like old hat and may require more forceful interpretation than what we have here. Granted, there are some allusions to World War II: for example, when Cradeau suggests they look into themselves and never raise their heads, Inez Heils while replying, “Agreed!” But this loaded imagery is not backed by enough substance, it does not cohere with Ms. Key’s production as a whole, and plays as an unnecessary intrusion into a play that is more effective when it is universalized. Cutesy puns that are not part of Paul Bowles’ original translation (“Why in the hell…?” and “What the hell…?”) only further diminish the project. A work this bold should not be reduced to easy references, bad jokes, and a series of sterile performances. And no company in New York City should know this better than the Pearl.