Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle:NO EXIT—live-feed video/theatre fusion at ACT

By John A. McMullen II
Monday April 18, 2011 - 01:56:00 PM
Laara Sadiq, Lucia Frangione, Andy Thompson
Michael Julian Berz
Laara Sadiq, Lucia Frangione, Andy Thompson

Though playwrights are sometimes excellent philosophers (e.g., Sophocles, Shakespeare, Shaw), philosophers aren’t known for being very good playwrights. 

Luckily NO EXIT is short (80 min.), and glammed-up with some glitzy though glitchy video. 

The French title for NO EXITisHuis Clos; which means in a room, implying a private discussion, kind of “behind closed doors.” In this production, the entire stage is given over to the outer lobby/storage space for the hotel. Almost all the acting happens off-stage left within an unseen cramped video set with multiple cameras; the action is projected onto a triptych screen upstage center. 

This production teases us that it’s going to be a comedic take on the play, but then serves up the existential bleakness that our philosopher/playwright tricks up in his closet drama of the hereafter – 

or perhaps a metaphor for the here-and-now. (For a reminder of the Existentialist perspective, drop down to the end of this review.) 

This play always reminds me of a joke I read in a raunchy joke-book when I was a kid. 

A man dies and goes to heaven. 

He’s sitting around on a cloud, strumming his harp, very bored, when he looks down and sees his neighbor down in Hell. His neighbor was a philandering, drunken, SOB with larceny in his heart. But there he sits on a keg of whiskey with a hot blonde on his lap. 

Our guy calls St. Peter over and says, “I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, but I just noticed that the SOB who used to live next door and never drew an honest or sober breath is down there sitting on a keg of whiskey with a blonde on his lap!’ 

St. Pete looks over at the scene, and says, “Oh yeah. Well, let me explain. You see that keg of whiskey? It has a hole in it. You see that blonde….?” 

Remember the “Call for Phillip Morris!” television commercials from the 50’s with the little guy with the funny cap with the chinstrap wearing the semi-military maroon livery? That’s the way a French valet dresses. It’s a sight-gag from the get-go. Our Valet at that Big-Hotel-Down-Below regales us with his antics throughout the play and functions as a pleasant distraction from the tedium. 

Our Valet escorts our three characters (i.e., drags them kicking and screaming) into a sitting room with no mirrors. Our characters are venal, worthless, miserable sad-sacks. The room is furnished with three chairs and a side board on which sits a bust of Caesar, a man who, unlike our characters, actually made some difference in the world. Our guests are: a confrontational, sharp-featured Lesbian (Lucia Frangione); a narcissistic, middle-aged platinum blonde (Laara Sadiq); and a womanizing, mustachioed, abusive journalist (Andy Thompson) who was allegedly shot as a collaborator (note: NO EXIT was written a month before the Americans freed Paris from the Nazis). 

Our actors give it all they’ve got in the power games and desperation that the script requires. They look the parts, as if they stepped out of a French 1950’s film, with Laara Sadiq bearing a remarkable likeness to a blonde Simone Signoret. They recount their banal and venal lives and their malice toward others, and even have a portal into the physical world of this life to observe their funerals and what they’ve left in their wake. 

Great premise, great set-up, lots of ideas and implications to follow: no mirrors for the homophobic narcissist so she has to look deeply into the eyes of the lesbian to see her own reflection; incessant chatter from the women drive the man up the wall, and when he starts to get it on with the blonde, the lesbian hovers and annoys him to distraction like a little demon from you-know-where; and the lesbian has to endure the smell of a man while she is attracted to a woman who loathes the idea of being touched by her. Like the man said, “L'enfer, c'est les autres,” i.e., hell is other people. 

Insights abound into humankind’s behavior, nature, and situation. Monsieur Sartre’s version of the afterlife is one of psychological torture and being caught in a union of opposites, with the idea that the spiritual structure which we build in this life will follow us into the next. This is a typical Christian premise absent the Dantesque seven circles of physical pain. I find it ironic that an atheistic Existentialist’s theatrical offering is based on an afterlife, unless it’s meant as irony and ridicule. And it might be a lot more entertaining if it were played as a send-up, but this, like all other versions I’ve seen, is deadly serious. Sometimes it plays like an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone.” 

The premise is engaging, but better read than acted since it seems to mainly serve as a metaphor for the author’s philosophy I don’t rankle at the bleakness—I relish the bleak—it’s that there’s—pardon the quip—nowhere to go with it. Thus, eternal ennui just chases these three little piggies wee-wee-wee-wee all the way home. It’s a little theatre of cruelty joke taken to the logical extreme that reduces the evening to absurdity…though it could put one off acting on any suicidal ideations. 

The lighting is dramatic and effective in the early moments, but the three video screens don’t match up which is a deadening distraction. The three video screens don’t even match up. When one character looks over to talk to the other, they are looking over one another’s heads or to the left or right. Audiences nowadays are exposed to such terrific effects at the movies and on TV that to have a crappy video-feed like this is too sophomoric for a 49-seat storefront theatre, let alone ACT. Fifty years ago, television devised the three-camera system which calls for a director to “call the shots” and switch between cameras. Perhaps thisvideo style was meant as a metaphor that each of us lives in our own little space playing our own little life on our own little screen. However, playing a metaphor for longer than a trice generally interferes with the drama and, in this case, with the picturization of the action. 

After the curtain, the woman in front of me remarked that she was going to start going to church and being good; I just wanted to get home to watch reruns of “Ally McBeal” to wipe away this version of futility. But my sweetie E was not familiar with NO EXIT, and was really was drawn to it; she said it stimulated a lot of ideas and ironies previously unconsidered. So maybe I’m just fatigué and blasé about this particular play. If you don’t know the play—since it is part of the canon of modern drama— this is an opportunity to further your theatrical education in a short, painless, and moderately entertaining fashion. 

(For those who are foggy on Philosophy 101, let’s turn to a paraphrase of our trusty Google: 

Existentialism focuses on the condition of human existence and the meaning or purpose of life. The early 19th century philosopher and father of existentialism Søren Kierkegaard maintained that the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and for living that life passionately and sincerely, in spite of many existential obstacles and distractions including despair, angst, absurdity, alienation, and boredom.”

Anniversary Time! Last April 2010, I posted my first review in the Berkeley Daily Planet. It’s a year later, and this is my 52nd review. That’s well over 50,000 words. Figure three hours to attend each play plus three hours to write the review plus two hours to edit it, which adds up to over ten full work-weeks (conservative estimate; when I started it took me about 12 hours to write one!).  

Thanks to the O’Malleys for giving me the opportunity; the BDP is an underappreciated local treasure as are all the things they do for this community from the Chamber House to their support of the arts. 

My extreme gratitude goes to E J Dunne who has edited every review. I thank her for repairing my syntactical awkwardness and tendency toward the never-ending sentence; for constantly challenging the clarity of my expression and argumentation and where the best place for the comma is; for enduring my temperamental outbursts about her dogged attention to detail ; and for being so damn cute.