- Al Foote III
Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous play cleverly imagines hell through a distinctly 20th-century lens: no fires or thumbscrews here; instead, its visions of torment, rooted in modern neuroses, involve the inability to blink, electric lights that never turn off, sofas too short to lie down on, and endless, unoccupiable time. Well, that’s not exactly true: there’s always conversation! That wry maxim “hell is other people” (“l’enfer, c’est les autres”) comes from Paul Bowles’s classic translation of the play, in which three people of all different classes, genders and sexual orientations find themselves sharing quarters in the afterlife. “The customers serve themselves,” one notes of the absence of traditional torturers, noting that these three have been specially brought together for their unique capacities to hurt each other.
Each has committed a few sins: malice, manipulation, materialism, cruelty, desertion, infanticide, adultery. But they’ve all fashioned stories that they tell themselves, or at least others, that pitch them as heroes in the narratives of their lives. Each is able to see through the other’s bullshit: Inez can see Cradeau’s cowardice; Estelle can see Inez’s desperation; Cradeau can see Estelle’s need for his attention. It’s not that they’re forced to confront themselves, but that they must see themselves as the others see them, and engage in the Sisyphean task of persuading those intransigent others to see things their way. They need to be locked into this relationship: when their wardens give them the chance to leave, they won’t, or rather, they can’t. Hell isn’t just other people—it’s needing them. First, the characters despair about being despised back among the living, but later it’s more painful to realize they’ve been completely forgotten even by those who would hate them.
Unfortunately, this production (at the Pearl Theatre through March 30) might be as forgetful as such a random dead person. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it: the play is great, and plays are meant to be seen performed, and this one hasn’t been done on or off Broadway in more than 15 years. Director Linda Ames Key’s conception is straightforward—its only flourish the walls, which sometimes are illuminated to reveal vertically arranged detritus—and the performances are satisfactorily functional. (As Inez, Jolly Abraham has an unfortunate habit of shouting and screaming her lines, which only intensify her character’s eye-rolling cliche: the sinister, unreasonable lesbian.) If this is hell, give thanks, because it could be a hell of a lot worse!
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