American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by Jerry Mouawad. Based on an earlier production at Mouawad’s Imargo Theatre in Portland, Oregon. First performance, January 7, 2006.
Sartre’s play is a very clever imaginative rendering available in all too human terms: a room with a closed door, three people, and nowhere to go. One wonders if Beckett saw the first or an early production of Huis Clos and was deeply influenced by it (and if Pinter, in turn, was influenced by Beckett’s rendering of the same idea). What gives this production a very special cachet is the fact that it is played on a seventeen-foot platform raised a good three feet off the stage floor and held up by an ingenious set of flexible supports near the periphery of the stage, along with a fixed support in the very center, resulting in the constant tilting of the stage as actors walk to different parts of it, establishing a constantly changing dynamic that mirrors or reifies the changing relationships of the three main characters.
Three characters, a man (Garcin) and two women ( Estelle and Inez) are ushered one at a time into an almost featureless room by a fiendish valet. They seem to have been placed here at random, but as they introduce themselves to one another and begin to establish relationships among themselves we sense that there is something almost diabolical — the right word for it — about their ending up together in this God-forsaken place: literally, because it turns out to be hell, in fact. The drama lies generally in their discovery of what hell is, and more particularly in what they did or failed to do that has sent them to this place, and for eternity. Garcin has been sent for his moral cowardice, surely the deadliest of sins in Sartre’s universe, where acting and action, as Garcin ironically explains toward the end of the play, are what determine who and what you are. Estelle has been sent here because she killed her infant child. And Inez — I can’t recall at this point what her offense was. Together these three are doomed to sit on the miniature sofas (there are three) or rise and walk the room, finding now allies and now enemies in the other two.
The play, we decided, might be a little tedious, even though its playing time is only an hour and twenty minutes, were it not for the amazing fluctuating stage floor, which seems to operate on a kind of geometric progression: the further from the center an actor is, the more effect a move away from the center has. At the very periphery of the stage it is possible for the stage to tilt down almost to the floor, which it does on several occasions, producing a sense of instability somewhat akin to a vertigo-like effect.
The “shifting sands” — Robert Orchard’s metaphor (he is the Executive Director of the ART) for the interplay of character relationships here — of the play are fully dramatized, in addition to the tilting stage by the very well differentiated characters and their costumes. Will LeBow, as Garcin the moral coward, is perfectly cast as a man who lacks courage but is very good, or finally not good at all, at bluffing. He wears an oddly cut three-button, double-breasted light brown check suit, deliberately made to be ill-fitting. Karen MacDonald as Estelle wears a really tacky, blowsy light blue floor-length gown with a dark brown camisole showing at the top of the low-cut bust, and a big blonde Forties wig that reminds us of Mae West: Important Hair is what it is, but it convinces no one. Inez, in a dark brown wig, Ida Lupino-style, sports a tailored grey wool dress with red triangular pleats at the edge of the skirt and a tailored bust that emphasizes the breasts individually rather than the bust-line overall. Ungainly, unattractive, all of them, fairly reeking of unsuccessful pretense.
The acting was expert, yet a little too overdone on MacDonald’s part, in the early moments; or maybe she just took some getting used to. It always takes more than a little getting used to in the case of Remo Airaldi, with his irritating high-tenor voice and sneering accents. As the Valet, dressed in the red pill-box hat and costume of the call-boy who, in the cigarette ads of the Forties, use to “call for Philip Morrees!” I find a little of him goes a long way, and the director amplified his role beyond that given to him by Sartre in the script, having him come out twice in the course of the middle of the play: once to raise and lock in place braces at the midpoint of each side of the stage to steady it and prevent it from tipping; and then again, at the back of the thrust area, to raise a large lever from the floor that tripped the four braces all at once and put the stage back into full careening mode. He was appropriately repulsive; at least that can be said for him.
And for the production as a whole much can be said that is favorable. The amazing engineering feat that literally underscored the performance was constantly in evidence and yet never inappropriately so. Rather, it was a potent reification of the hellish shifts of motive, intention, and allegiance that, in Sartre’s saturnine view, characterized human relationships in general.
There was nothing in the program to take us beyond this inexorably general frame of reference: nothing about the origins of the play in Vichy wartime France, where loyalties and betrayals were alike constant; nothing to tell us about the almost transparent autobiographical subtext of the play — Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and their sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant shifting allegiances and double-timings, always involving a third, female person. Is this what it’s like to see a classic in performance? So be it.