Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
Has ‘No Exit’
BY PHILIP K. SCHEUER
Everyone is on his own at the Coronet Theatre, where Pelican Productions last night presented Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit.” This goes for the individual in the audience as well as on the stage. The setting is hell—represented by a dingy “living” room with sagging wallpaper and a few broken-down pieces of furniture—and so is the experience. In this respect “No Exit” is true to itself.
Any levity in what I have just said is incidental. The play, which runs continuously for an hour and a half, contains no laughs, no tears, no action and no changes of scene in the conventional meaning of those words. It does have cumulative shock, writing that at least reveals a keen enough sense of theater (it must have, to hold the attention without recourse to the usual devices) and performances that on the whole convey a great deal of intent which is behind that writing.
Excluding a bellboy who briefly ushers in the damned souls, the cast is made up of a French collaborationist who was also a coward (played by John Emery), a pretty nymphomaniac (Nancy Coleman) and a daughter of Lesbos, self-described as “one of those women” (Tamara Geva). Soon after her entrance, Miss Geva cries: “Someone’s missing here—the torturer!” It is her first glimpse of the truth. Mr. Emery, following her lead, finally realizes it, too. “Hell,” he blurts out of the depths of his agony, “is just other people.”
I imagine this is where Existentialism, the philosophy evolved by Playwright Sartre, comes in. In a world without God, man is answerable to himself for what he is and does. It is as close as I am able to approach the Sartre creed at this moment of deadline.
Since it is a translation from the French, the play does carry a certain feeling of strangeness over and above that of its outré setting, despite its reduction to an American vernacular. Nevertheless, it blazes up now and again in passages that are certainly basic enough—I guess basic is the word—to sear the consciousness of anyone within earshot.
Like the performance on the stage, the applause of the audience grew slowly—hesitantly at first, then more pronounced. Of those performances, I think Miss Geva’s was the strongest, possibly because her character is the strongest. Mr. Emery’s surrender to despair was conditioned by the natural reluctance of Mr. Emery to surrender to anything, but he made a rather convincing stab at it, and his reading was excellent technically.
In spite of everything, most of the sympathy—what there was of it—went to Miss Coleman, who plays, as I have said, a pretty woman and is one. Jurors will know what I mean. Her voice lacks carrying power, but she rose surprisingly well to her emotional climaxes.
Don Jessee had merely to be archly deadpan as the bellboy.
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Sartre’s play had its West Coast premiere the year after it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best foreign play and proved so popular that it was held over an additional two weeks. It starred Emery and Geva (who were married, and the respective ex-spouses of Tallulah Bankhead and George Balanchine).
Set designer Howard Warshaw staged an exhibit of his artwork in the theater’s lobby. A critic noted: “The exhibit is of drawings, large and small, some of human figures but more of skulls and bones of animals, drawn with an extraordinary grasp of the refinements of bony structures which have made them the envy and university of engineers and architects in all ages.”
(Note how Scheuer tiptoed around the issue of lesbianism in his review. Newspapers were extremely squeamish about homosexuality in the 1940s. But I must say that in all, reviewing the premiere of “No Exit” on a tight deadline must have been quite a challenge).
Emery, who appears in the film “Spellbound,” died in 1964. Geva died in 1997. Nancy Coleman, who vanished from the stage and films for many years, died in 2000 after returning to acting in “Ryan’s Hope.” Howard Warshaw, an art professor at UC Santa Barbara, died in Carpinteria in 1977.
The Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Brea, is still in operation. Its current production is “Menopause, the Musical.”