Reviewed by Rebecca Sheriff
I was very intrigued when I heard there was going to be a local production of the play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. The work has been an absolute favorite of mine since studying existentialism as an undergraduate, and I find myself quoting the famous line “Hell is other people” on a weekly basis. I was hoping that this production by the Half Light Theatre would be traditional as the brilliance of this extraordinary play lies in its understated drama and the philosophical questions that arise from the profound dialogue. At Saturday evening’s performance (June 2), I was not disappointed.
The performance took place in the mansion portion of the Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton, and the “stage” was a small alcove in the ballroom. The minimalist setting served the content well, and the warmth of the upper-level ballroom helped convey the hot locate referred to by the characters. It was sometimes difficult to see the actors as the performance area was not raised, but it did feel like a realistic setting.
The play is challenging both to direct and act in, and I commend the Half Light Theatre for choosing such an ambitious work. There are just four actors with no props or scene changes, and the three main characters are on stage almost the entire time. The characters are introduced to the scene one by one by a valet character who brings them into the room. One of the few nontraditional choices for this production was a child actor for the valet. I wasn’t sure what this choice added to the performance, but it wasn’t particularly distracting as the valet’s last scene is near the beginning of the play, and the actor, Jacob Schwartz, conveyed the role appropriately.
Once in the room, the three characters spend time getting acquainted with one another and their new environment. There is a great deal of self-reflective dialogue from each character, and at times I felt that taking a slower pace with the dialogue in the beginning would have allowed for a greater build of drama as the play went on. I particularly enjoyed the intensity of the few silent moments when the characters are awkwardly sitting with each other, and I thought those moments could have been even longer. However, considering the difficulty of such a dialogue-centric play, the actors did a fine job. The ballroom stage is a very intimate setting with wonderful acoustics, which is perfect for the subtle drama of the play. When the actors yelled, it almost carried too much in the small space. This particularly production would have held up well in larger setting as well, for the actors’ expressions and gestures were more than readable.
No Exit can be a serious play, and in this production, directed by Tim Mollen, the character of Estelle (played by Linda Liburdi) serves, at times, as comic relief. The character comes across clearly in costume, mannerisms and speech as an over-the-top socialite. Chris Nickerson’s performance as Cradeau was natural and realistic, and Missy Harris clearly portrayed Inez’s sinister and manipulative nature. The one thing that I wasn’t particularly thrilled with in this production is the use of a classical theater technique of an actor looking off into space toward the back of the house when thinking. This happens often as the characters have glimpses of goings-on at home, and I thought perhaps that these strong actors could have portrayed their visions differently.
Overall, I am very happy that such a serious, challenging and important drama as No Exit is being performed in this area, and I encourage everyone to attend the final performance at 3 p.m. today (Sunday, June 3) to experience, first-hand, the Hell of other people.