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Theater :: Give Them Hell
Two of Boston's major regional theater companies kick off the year with productions that take a look at life among the damned.
"No Exit," staged by the American Repertory Theatre and "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," presented by the Huntington Theatre Company
by Bill Marx
Boston, MA - January 20, 2006 - How hot should hell be on stage? The answer depends on the play's particular underworld. The American Repertory Theatre's compelling production of "No Exit," Jean Paul Sartre's existential Hades, depends on a pretty cool gimmick. British playwright Christopher Hampton's intelligent adaptation of French novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" calls for waves of stylish erotic heat. Alas, the efficient Huntington Theatre Company production raises only a few lukewarm ripples of desire.
The H.T.C. production provides hot costumes for its 18th century French aristocrats behaving badly. But this tale of egomaniacal monsters, whose idea of fun is bedding innocents, calls for psychological subtlety and moral depth. The best director Daniel Goldstein and his cast can do is to suggest suburban discomfort -- the production is directed and acted as if the play were "Desperate Housewives" in the French Revolution.
As the babe magnet Valmont, Michael T. Weiss can't decide whether to treat his many love scenes seriously or as parody -- they fall flat either way. As for Valmont's sadomasochistic partner in crime, La Marquise de Merteuil, Tasha Lawrence reduces a complex character -- a charismatic compound of feminism and self-hatred -- into a grating monotone of sarcasm.
Speaking of monotones, Sartre's "No Exit" is considered a classic, yet on stage it comes off as a windy bore. But the American Repertory Theatre's production cuts against the script's talky earnestness about man's emptiness. Director Jerry Mouawad turns the play into a sardonic exercise in absurdist comedy. The play is performed on a stage that is set on a central pivot -- when an actor moves so does the floor, up and down. The device beautifully illustrates Sartre's theme: the ego is vanity in perpetual motion, constantly reacting to what others think of it.
The play brings three dead strangers into a room -- at the A.R.T. the space is pretty bare, aside from three small sofas. The bourgeois trio soon reveals its secrets, sexual and otherwise, which will generate petty feuding and fighting that will last for eternity, with no time out for eating or sleeping.
To his credit, Mouawad doesn't let the set do all the work. A quartet of A.R.T. veteran actors snarl, seduce, and rant with mesmerizing flair, from Remo Airaldi as a plump bellhop to Paula Plum's devilish brat, Karen MacDonald's low rent femme fatale, and Will LeBow's weasel of a macho man. The emphasis on physical comedy undercuts "No Exit's" vision of imploding psychic pain -- but that is a small price to pay for such a deliciously entertaining visit with the damned.
The American Repertory Theatre production of "No Exit" runs through January 29, 2006 at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, MA. For tickets call 617-547-8300.
The Huntington Theatre Company production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" runs through February 5, 2006 at the Boston University Theatre in Boston, MA. For tickets, call 617-266-0800.