Hotel Hell

Even people who don’t know much about Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy may have heard his quotation “Hell is other people,” and maybe thought that handily encapsulated what this Existentialism thing is all about.  And no, that’s not it at all, but it does describe the play that sentence is from—No Exit, in which three strangers find themselves in the same tastefully appointed drawing room for all eternity. They know they’re in Hell but find no torturers or torments of any kind except each other’s company, which they quickly find intolerable.

Jonathon Young with Andy Thompson and Lucia Frangione onscreen. Photo by Barbara Zimonick.

Now American Conservatory Theater has brought the Virtual Stage and Electric Company Theatre’s Canadian production of Sartre’s 1944 play to San Francisco for its U.S. premiere. Dreamt up and directed by Kim Collier, this version doesn’t put us in the same room as the new roommates at all. As usual, a valet shows each of them into the room and answers a few questions for them, but in Collier’s staging we remain outside the room with the valet while they’re locked into what looks like a large concrete box off in one of the wings. We see what takes place inside their room projected onto three screens.

A cluster of mirrors leans on one side of Jay Gower Taylor’s set. The play makes it clear that there are no mirrors in the room, but apparently there were plenty before they were taken out. On a desk are two stacks of yellowed paper, one with “SAID” printed on the top page in big block letters, and the much taller stack reading “UNSAID.”  There’s a cot in one corner with a cot, a dirty sink and a small stack of luggage. There’s a pile of bells in the middle of the floor, suspiciously like the one the guests are supposed to ring if they need anything, and a red carpet runs the length of the stage to the door of the concrete box. There’s an omnipresent droning hum in Brian Linds’s sound design, as if from nearby heavy machinery, and very loud dramatic music whenever the doors to Hell open with light pouring through them (lighting design by John Webber).

The text makes it clear that the guests know very well they’re in Hell before they reach the room, and are understandably apprehensive because they don’t know quite what to expect. Collier undermines the civilized, resigned dialogue of their entry by having the guests arrive in a state of panic, trying to escape before the valet grabs them and wrangles them into the room. He gleefully flings any bags they may have into the corner.

The acting style is melodramatically overstated, bordering on camp, as the guests interrogate each other on what they did to earn their place in Hell. Andy Thompson, who doubles as the video designer, blusters and fumes as the journalist Cradeau, who boasts of his callousness to his wife too readily for that to be the real reason he’s here. Laara Sadiq sneers and gets in the others’ faces as Inez, a hard-edged, spiteful lesbian desperate to get a reaction—any reaction—out of the others. “I need to see people suffer to exist at all,” she says. The most nuanced and compelling performance is that of Lucia Frangione as Estelle, a badly shaken, once-glamorous society wife entirely dependent on male attention.

Thompson’s video design is definitely the highlight of the production. The cameras are trained on three chairs that give us up close views of the three characters on three large screens, especially when they stare directly at the cameras to see what the people they left behind are doing on earth. From time to time there’s a shift from one view to another, and occasionally at a dramatic moment all three screens will show the scene from the same perspective.

The text is far from new—it’s Paul Bowles’s English translation from 1946—but the way it’s presented makes it a whole new play, for better or for worse. In Sartre’s play we see the valet only at the beginning, when he ushers the people into the room, but in this production the valet is omnipresent.  Dressed in a hotel bellhop’s uniform, he watches the people on the screens, sometimes climbing a ladder to make childish gestures in front of their projected faces. He pounds on the door if they say anything remotely disparaging about him and holds the door closed when they try to open it—never mind that it’s already securely locked.

As the valet, Jonathon Young roams around the stage with an antic, monkeylike energy. He’s entirely unsympathetic with the guests, condescending with a clownish toothy smile and a mocking tone, but for some reason expects more sympathy from the audience. He holds up signs with desperate messages asking us to help him, because in this version the audience has been written in as spectators who for some reason can come and go as they please. There’s even an added prologue and epilogue focusing entirely on his situation, credited in the program as a separate piece by Young called “The Valet” but performed as if it were part of the actual play. “Uncle, is there any word from up top?” he asks over the phone. “I mean, are they saying how many times we’ll have to do this?”

Even the ending—if a play about eternal torment can truly be said to have an ending—is changed drastically to suggest it’s more about the valet’s torment than the guests’. In fact, in this version the guests get off easy, and he’s the one who has to face eternity. But even before that, the fact that the valet is just waiting around for something to happen undermines the play’s message that there’s no escape, or to put it another way, no exit.

The trouble with this approach is that it makes the play much more about the valet than about the people in the room. Indeed, it seems as if he’s saying, “Forget those boring schmucks in their own personal hell—look at me!,” presupposing that Sartre’s play isn’t interesting enough on its own. As far as I can see, he creates the opposite problem. His antics are wearying and intrusive, distracting from the drama rather than accentuating it, and the situation and characters Sartre created are far more compelling than Collier and Young’s add-ons to the narrative.

Collier’s restaging is an interesting artistic interpretation that adds a lot to the play visually, but it helps if you don’t think about it too much, take a cue from Inez and just enjoy the suffering of the funny monkey man.

No Exit
Through May 1
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #36 of 2011, attended April 13.

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