STAGE REVIEW : A Timeless Lesson in Existentialism in Sartre’s ‘No Exit’


The existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre assumed the guise of a fad several decades ago, at the peak of the author-philosopher’s popularity. But like the submovements it spawned, including the generation that called itself “Beat,” its surface image has faded into a kind of historical quaintness.

Its central ideas can still guide us deeper into the meaning of our existence. This generation should take a closer look at Sartre. It might find its own image in the mirror of the author’s philosophy.

There are no mirrors in Sartre’s view of hell, viewed darkly in this welcome revival of his 1944 drama “No Exit” at the King King Club. The French title translates freely as “in a closed room,” where Hades’ accommodations are spare, but not unlike the cell-like rooms and featureless corridors of the next motor hotel you might stop at.


Three newcomers to hell are ushered into the room where they will spend eternity. There is no torturer, no fire, no brimstone. There is only their own guilt to punish them. They are each other’s torturers. As journalist and Nazi collaborator Vincent Cradeau grumbles near the end of the play, “Hell is--other people!”

There is the core of existentialism. Sartre once said man “is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself.” It’s the responsibility for their actions that confounds Cradeau and his roommates--the bitter and disappointed lesbian Inez, whose lover gassed them both after the death of the lover’s husband, and the childish, self-obsessed flirt Estelle, who tossed her unwanted baby to its death out of a window.

Their realization of who they were, and the debt they owe to themselves because of it, is the simple yet ultimately complex point of “No Exit,” and it resounds loudly and clearly to modern ears. Or it should, for the play is rarely performed.

Under Richard Stone’s clear-cut, forceful direction, the cast mirrors the torment of the room’s inhabitants with exact detail and effective subtext. Christopher Laurence as Cradeau, Wyn Costello as Inez and Tarlton Alexander as Estelle are totally of the play’s period (good 1940s costumes by Costello) and give the text the respect it requires.

As the Bellboy who brings them to their eternal destiny, Jose Jimenez is costumed as a Chinese subordinate. It’s part of director Stone’s design motif, which utilizes the club’s decadent Chinese ambience--including a marvelous panel of fire-breathing dragons--as a counterpoint to the decadence of these lost, trapped souls.

At 467 S. La Brea Ave.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m.; ends June 24. $7; (213) 871-8580.