Hellishly Good 

This solid, satisfying production's lack of an audience is a damnable waste.

Think, for a moment, of the people in your life whose personalities bother you. People whom you can't even run into at the grocery store for five minutes without finding yourself seething about their arrogance, or their tactlessness, or perhaps their annoying lack of spine. People who know how to push your buttons.

Jean-Paul Sartre had this idea: what if Hell--that place in the afterlife where bad people go--is nothing more than an eternity of forced conversation with people whose personalities grate? They're not enemies, mind you, nor folks you wronged in life. They're simply other people who won't let you comfortably make small talk. Who know how to say things that get under your skin. Who manipulate you in order to feel better about themselves. Who don't accept your excuses.

Such is the premise of Sartre's 1944 No Exit, staged by the new company Expression Theatre Ensemble. Sure, if you're looking, there's plenty in the script to back up Sartre's philosophy --this is the man who put existentialism on the map, after all. But No Exit also can work effectively as a fascinating, creepy character study. Its characters, three of them recently deceased, sit stewing in a parlor room in Hell, forced to take responsibility for how their lives were lived. Sartre unfolds their desperate, richly layered arguments, and their gradual realization that--as the famous quote from the play asserts--Hell is other people.

In life, Vincent Cradeau (Andrey Esterlis) was a French journalist, who treated his wife with physical and emotional cruelty. After his death, he is led by a mysterious valet to a sweltering room with three couches, which he comes to share with Inez Serrano (Susi Damilano), a brutally frank, working-class Spanish woman, and Estelle Delvaney (Carole Swann), a superficial French socialite. They arrive in Hell expecting thumb screws and brimstone, but instead find that each of them is uniquely qualified to be the psychological torturer of the other two. Wracked with powerful sexual attractions, their own manipulative habits of interaction, and the absence of night and mirrors, the three of them are mercilessly cruel to one another.

Hell in Walnut Creek, it seems, is devilishly low-budget. Performing in a tricky-to-find basement comedy club, the Expression Theatre Ensemble's set consists of a couple of pieces of second-hand furniture draped with fabric. The same fellow who greets you at the theater door also carries out the light and music cues--and also, quite efficiently, plays a small role onstage. Hell is also apparently not a great box office draw. Last Friday night, besides this critic, there was only one other audience member in attendance, a friendly gastroenterologist-and-sometimes-motivational speaker named Dr. Charm. (We had some time to chat before the show started, and while it certainly wasn't hellish, it would qualify as surreal.)

Now while Dr. Charm and I appreciated our private performance, such lack of audience is a damnable waste. This is a solid, satisfying production from a company seemingly blessed with strong actors capable of making intelligent choices.

The great danger of No Exit is that, staged ineffectively, it can be as restless, turgid, and frustrating as its characters' predicament. But these actors, with their crisp delivery and clear character choices, keep this from happening. Dialogue crackles with tension; the arguments thrust forward in unexpected pushes. The attractive Esterlis makes an effective Cradeau, smiling and charming-to-his-rotten-core. Swann, who comes across somewhat as a young, flirty Frances McDormand, delivers an unusually three-dimensional Estelle. Rather than playing up the callow, seductive stereotypes, we get to see glimpses of her real regret and terror, which raises the dramatic stakes.

Clever Inez, the character most aware of herself and her situation, is the most difficult role in No Exit--probably not least because she's a lesbian character written with the sexual sensibilities of a heterosexual man. At first, Damilano comes across as a touch too confident, with little of Inez's raw, wounded-animal aggression showing through. But before long, she is in fine form, especially when, in a tense attempted seduction, she offers to act as a yearning, desperate mirror for Estelle while she puts on her lipstick. Or in the play's sickening climax, when she finally giddily realizes the extent of her power over Cradeau. Damilano is restrained but commanding, and it's clear that it is her Inez who knows the score in this No Exit.

Potential audiences, take note. This should not be playing to empty seats. It's an above-average staging of a powerfully interesting piece of theater--one that sends creeps down its audience's spine at the same time it prods their intellect. I've also already seen Pearl Harbor, folks, and let me assure you: better to spend a weekend evening in Hell.

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