Satan has the cushiest job in the universe. He's also an equal-opportunity recruiter. Gays, straights, men, women, Nazi sympathizers, postal workers, airheads, journalists (especially journalists) and pretty much everybody else: All occupy about the same place on his radar, because all are way too eager to jump, and viciously so, on each other's frailties and flaws. The Big S has only to sit back and watch the others do the grunt work as they decimate in the lower realms what lives they couldn't obliterate on Earth.
No wonder, then, that “Hell is other people” stands as the most famous tagline from Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, the current Diversionary Theatre entry. We're the sum total of our choices, the play says, and those choices are made of our own free wills; one way or the other, we must account for them at the end of our days. Sartre's three characters will spend eternity together in Hades doing just that among themselves, and the feedback is as loathsome as the lives they led. Director Esther Emery recognizes that they in fact can't exist without each other's contempt—she's coaxed some wonderful work here as each character keeps coming back for more.
First up is Cradeau (Steven Lone), a spineless excuse for a reporter who sold out his country and aided the Nazis during World War II's French occupation. He's quickly joined by Inez (Monique Gaffney), a former postal clerk who in life routinely tormented her lesbian lover, and Estelle (Rihanna Basore), a ditzoid bourgeoisie who offed her bastard child. Inez is all too eager to take up with Estelle even as Cradeau responds to Estelle's advances; the resulting sexual tension fuels the trio's mutual ire, and hell becomes yet another venue for the characters' hatred and suspicion. The difference is that this hell never ends, as underscored by the toothy, sadistic smile on the face of the Bellboy (Kevin Morrison).
That hatred and suspicion is writ large against Jungah Han's imposing set, a mirrorless and windowless hotel room that locks from the outside. Soft blue walls stare ahead under Jason Bieber's unerring lights, placidly sitting in judgment as the characters thrust and parry in their calculated attempts to get the best of each other. At one point, the door opens upon Cradeau's frantic insistence, but none of the principals dare moves from the room. As painful as the past may be, it's a known quantity; these three are content to weather the eternal storm inside. Therein lies the tragedy, whether in this world or the next.
This play is an odd choice for gay-oriented Diversionary, as Inez's lesbianism is merely a circumstance of her evil and not the thrust of the story. It's almost as if the company's latched onto this secondary feature as an excuse for doing the play. Nonetheless, Emery and her designers have crafted an excellent piece of theater. The handsome set and players fly in the face of Sartre's lofty philosophy—the contrast invites insight into some aspects of our beings we'd just as soon ignore. This review is based on the evening performance of Sept. 14. No Exit runs through Oct. 5 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights. $25-$33. 619-220-0097 or www.diversionary.org.