Three strangers share a too-cozy parlor in a toasty corner of the afterlife, and the existential angst is palpable in Nu Sass Productions’ intimate — make that claustrophobic, but in a good way — staging of “No Exit.”
The company’s young actors tend to overplay the melodrama, considering the close quarters in which they’re working. Yet the verve with which they throw themselves into Jean-Paul Sartre’s parable proves infectious. The mood is almost gothic, as if we’ve turned an unexpected corner in a fun house, or landed in an undiscovered “Twilight Zone” episode.
Audience members climb a narrow stair and enter a gallery in the artsy Caos on F building, a space no larger than an average living room, and sit in one of the 30 or so seats arranged in a three-quarter circle around the stage. The set features a few 19th-century European-style pieces — a tufted sofa, a chaise, a faintly androgynous bronze sculpture, a Tiffany-style lamp. A fireplace sits flameless, though characters remark about the, er, heat in their new home. Cracked mirrors dot the walls, reflecting nothing. The sound of water dripping — perhaps an echo of the Paris sewers — sets a creepy tone. Sound designer Hope Villanueva’s minimalist audio track nails the changing moods throughout, though with a distracting static in the sound system.
Sartre’s iconic piece, “Huis Clos” in French, was first performed in 1944. It doesn’t come across as esoteric or absurdist now but plays as a surprisingly straightforward cautionary tale with unexpectedly religious over-and-undertones. Sin and how it accumulates on every person’s score card is Sartre’s subject, especially how we hurt others and how the hurt ripples out.
Director Angela Kay Pirko makes nifty work of “No Exit” as chamber theater, excavating the three characters’ misdeeds in permanent close-up. Poetic references to looking glasses and “glancing streams” curdle into revelations that reflect badly on them all.
It all begins when a snide valet (Tiffany Garfinkle) in a cutaway coat and John Lennon shades brings the first arrival, Garcin (Kyle McGruther), into the parlor. With luxurious locks and a well-fitting suit and vest, Garcin grandly introduces himself as a “journalist — man of letters,” and appears to be a gent of refined tastes. Yet he knows well why he’s landed in this place — moral cowardice and private cruelty.
Just as Garcin begins to settle into a sleepless unrest, a new guest arrives with an angry flourish. Inez (Aubri O’Connor, also Nu Sass’s artistic director), in a drab checked skirt and beige blouse, looks at Garcin and thinks he’s a torturer. What an odd misapprehension and yet oddly apt. In life, Inez was a postal clerk but also a seductress who wrecked lives.
Their third ill-matched roommate arrives in a gauzy, ankle-length gown and dainty gloves. Estelle (Amber Gibson) insists on sitting only where the upholstery matches her ensemble. Young, flirtatious and aristocratic, she will in due course reveal a history of vicious manipulation and worse.
It takes about 100 minutes before Garcin realizes that “Hell is — other people!”
The fun in “No Exit” and in Nu Sass’s imperfect but still juicy and arresting production lies in watching these souls jockey for position in you-know-where.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. Directed by Angela Kay Pirko. Set design, Eric McMorris; lighting, Colin Dieck. About 1 hour, 40 minutes, with no intermission. Produced by Nu Sass Productions as part of its Small Batch Audience Series. Through Nov. 22 at Caos on F, 923 F St. NW. $20. www.nusass.com.