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What's life like in hell? Jean-Paul Sartre's 'No Exit' says that other people are responsible for the damnation

Three disagreeable people are locked in a windowless, mirrorless hotel room that holds only three divans, a minor chandelier, a small knife and a statue of Cupid. This may resemble certain hotel rooms in Gallup, N.M., but the guests in question have just checked in to Hotel Hell. It's the setting of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, which opened last weekend at Live Theatre Workshop.

"Hell is other people," Sartre famously has one character observe near the end of this play, and so our trio of damned souls will be subjected not to Dante-like physical torture but to the eternal displeasure of one another's company. This is no small burden. How would you like to be consigned to hell with people whose first inclination is to criticize the furniture?

The 1944 play is essentially a popularization of some of the basic tenets of Sartre's existentialist philosophy. But this is no stifling graduate seminar; Sartre has fired up his script with plenty of sardonic humor. By existentialist standards, this play is a laff riot.

People glancingly familiar with existentialism might be caught short by a couple of un-Sartrean touches here. To begin with, how can a man whose philosophy had no room for any sort of afterlife set a play in hell? Well, that's easy; this is simply a metaphor for the hells we create in our daily lives. Think of these characters as relatives of Dilbert's cubicle-bound engineers, their dialog rewritten by dour cigarette smokers in black turtlenecks and berets.

And then there's the difficulty these characters have when they finally have a chance to get out of their hellish room, one without the others. These three people are linked to each other against their will, yet it's a central notion of existentialism that the individual chooses to be engaged with or disengaged from society, and that choice is one part of the struggle to create meaning in an inherently absurd existence. But that seemed to worry Camus more than Sartre; in No Exit, Sartre just wants to get on with the show.

Submitted for your consideration:

· Cradeau, a pacifist French journalist and Nazi collaborator whose deeper crime is his degrading treatment of his wife. (Live Theatre Workshop uses the Paul Bowles translation; in other editions, this character is named Garcin, which sounds a bit too much like what you call a French waiter.)

· Inez, a misanthropic lesbian ("femme damnée," as Sartre puts it) who thrives on others' suffering.

· Estelle, a narcissistic nouvelle-riche socialite and baby killer.

With these three people in the same room, who needs thumbscrews? Each needs but fails to receive some sort of validation from one of the others; each conspires with another in the psychological torture of the third. One of them always undermines another's efforts to find some sort of salvation, or at least escape from hell. But of course, you can't escape from hell. The play is only 90 minutes long, but for the characters, it lasts an eternity.

Luckily, the time passes more swiftly for the audience at Live Theatre Workshop's production, which is directed by Tobin Jeffery. The director and cast avoid letting any of the lines seem portentous and make well-judged use of the script's early verbal humor without undermining the more serious material that comes later.

Some productions try to give the characters either a contemporary or timeless look, but this version wisely acknowledges that these are creatures of the 1940s without turning the script into some sort of museum piece. For example, Inez's revulsion at heterosexual attraction is downplayed as much as possible without erasing it as a motivation for many of her actions in life and the afterlife.

As Inez, Cynthia Jeffery is easily the most fascinating figure on stage. This is the one character Sartre allows an inner sense of self, and you can see Jeffery's Inez gaining strength from the missteps of the others. Without even opening her mouth, Jeffery establishes Inez as a bitter, manipulative character who's finally settled in exactly the right neighborhood.

Sybille Bruun's Estelle is manipulative in quite another way; she manipulates from a position of arrogant weakness, like a Southern belle. She's a succubus who cannot survive without the close, fawning attention of someone else, preferably an attractive man. Bruun crafts her character so well that you actually believe her when she says that she doubts her existence if she can't see herself in mirror; this line could so easily fall thudding to the stage under its symbolic weight.

Matt Walley, as the self-centered Cradeau, favors a blunt, no-nonsense delivery; instead of caressing a line, he puts it to efficient use and quickly leaves it behind, exactly as Cradeau would treat a woman. While one might want a bit more nuance from time to time, Walley does wryly underplay some lines to good effect, as when he observes, appalled, that his room contains no bed because he will never sleep: "So we have to live with our eyes open," he says with the light disgust of a nascent existentialist.

Anthony Pavelich is an appropriately unblinking, feline presence in his secondary role as the hotel's bell boy.

So, as Sartre cheerfully points out, hell is what you make it. George Bernard Shaw made something rather different of it; watch this space next week for a review of the Quintessential troupe's staged reading of Shaw's Don Juan in Hell.

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