It takes place in a small room. No windows, no mirrors, no way out. Uptown Estelle (Genevieve Simon) is attracted to Garcin (Anthony B. Cohen). Inez (Natalie Beisner) is attracted to Estelle. Garcin has other things on his mind so he rebuffs Estelle. The manipulative Inez tries to step into the breach of Estelle's affections. Epic failure. Garcin warms up to Estelle and she warms up right back. This makes Inez furious. It goes on and on. And on and on.
Sound like hell? It is. John Paul Sartre's "No Exit," directed by Andrew Vonderschmitt for the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, imagines hell as a room in which three people torment each other through eternity. Sartre's hell is not brimstone and lava, degradation and torture. It's people being people. The story turns human nature in on itself. Here, it's a matter of unfulfilled desire. Though the three deserve to be in hell, we don't see evidence of that side of their characters. Instead we see Estelle, for instance, unable to affirm her femininity because she can't look in a mirror, she can't get Garcin to look at her. If indeed "hell is other people," then it's because it's through other people that one claims their identity. An eternity without affirmation. How ghastly.
Immediate issues consume the three characters, not the fact that they're in hell. No one shrieks in despair, rips at their hair, rails at their fate. Instead they act like they're stuck on an existential equivalent of Gilligan's Island. The acting is low-key. This makes the absurdity of their reactions all the more ridiculous.
Cohen plays his Garcin introspective, troubled, and brooding. You can see how this would make him all the more appealing to Estelle. He's handsome, he suffers, and he's aloof. Plus, for the moment, he doesn't hit on her. This infuriates Estelle, an attractive woman not used to being ignored. This fuels her insecurity, which Simon portrays very well. The nervous voice, the fretting gestures, these are the traits of someone used to being the center of attention but isn't.
The most interesting of the three is Beisner's Inez. Sexual preference precludes her participating in the dynamic between Cohen and Simon. All she can do is watch and simmer with frustration. While Cohen and Simon wear their Estelle and Garcin on their sleeves, Beisner keeps her Inez cloistered. She's exotic and mysterious. Her face reveals nothing of what she's thinking. Of the three, she's the most likely to boil over. It's for her you feel the most sympathy. She's consigned to an eternity of being an outsider in her "Three's Company" of hell-bound roommates.
The production works because Vonderschmitt focused on Sartre's emotional frustrations of hell. The acting and the minimal set confirm the words of Phyllis McGinley: "Sticks and stones are hard on bones but silence breaks the heart."
Performances are 8pm, Saturday and Sunday, 2pm, Sunday. The show runs until August 23. Tickets are $24. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim Street Long Beach, CA 90802. For more information, call (562) 494-1014 or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.