Men Without Shadows
By Jean-Paul Sartre
The Flea Theater
41 White Street
When your most popular play is a scenario set in purgatory, what do you do for an encore? Jean-Paul Sartre’s Morts Sans Sepulture (translated as Men Without Shadows)—more or less a follow-up to his best-known drama, No Exit—also deals with a group of people jailed under impossible circumstances. But while No Exit‘s concerns are personal and metaphysical, this 1946 play depicts a literal hell on earth—wartime occupation, imprisonment, and torture. Despite its harrowing nature and its frank presentation of the dehumanization war engenders, the play’s remounting by the Horizon Theater Rep is utterly timely and very welcome.
Act I opens in a prison cell, among a group of five French resistance fighters captured after their attempt to secure a village goes horribly wrong. The Flea Theater’s oblong, dim downstairs space is a perfect stand-in for the cramped attic in which French Nazi collaborators hold their captives. Since the prisoners have no useful information, they’re convinced they have nothing to hide and will probably be murdered. The situation becomes more urgent when their leader is thrown in with them, unrecognized by the collaborators. As each member of the group is taken out of the room to be tortured, those left behind speculate about who might crack under the pressure. Subsequent acts take place in the interrogation room, and among the collaborators. What the plot lacks in complexity, it more than compensates for in urgency, impassioned dialogue, and ideas. These unlucky souls are an existentialist think tank with a gun to its head.
The resistance fighters may suffer from an overabundance of Sartre’s sympathies as a leftist and former P.O.W., and from some overdramatic turns, but the play is amazingly evenhanded and generous to the Nazi collaborators—who, though they commit inhuman acts (tastefully staged but not robbed of impact by director Simon Hammerstein), are at times more humanly drawn than their Brechtishly brave victims. Their petty rivalries and paranoid behavior would probably be humorous if they didn’t occur in the context of the horrors of war. (Sound like anyone we know?)
True to existentialism, Sartre avoids appointing anyone the play’s hero, spreading its tough moral choices evenly throughout the prisoners’ roles. Sorbier, the first to be tortured, claims subsequently that he would have given up Jean, their leader, but commits a final act of bravery in Act III. Henri, the tough-minded zealot of the group, is ashamed to have screamed during his torture session, and later commits a very ethically questionable act.
The trouble with this bracing, good-looking production—aside from your immediate need for a stiff drink afterward—is mostly one of casting. By design, the play is an ensemble piece, yet everyone in this group has a wildly different acting approach. Sorbier mutters his way through an Edward Norton film, stiff-backed Jean projects like a young Byron Jennings. Henri’s diction is at times unintelligible, the coltish François takes the stage direction “pacing” far too seriously. As Lucie, the lone female in the bunch, Hillary Keegin both exhibits a noble restraint and looks the part, and collaborators Jordan Lage and David Wilson Barnes have a marvelous, Strangelove-ly rapport, but nobody has quite the gravitas to pull off lines like “They broke my wrists, they tore open my flesh—haven’t I paid for the right to die?” Perhaps that’s a good thing, sobriety so tough often comes from years of militarized anxiety, and there’s still hope that our country can escape that fate. —James Hannaham
None of the Above
By Jenny Lyn Bader
The Ohio Theatre
66 Wooster Street
Characterize Jenny Lyn Bader’s None of the Above as: (A) an entertaining romantic comedy, (B) a silly, improbable story, (C) a disappointing exploration of class and character, or (D) all of the above. If you chose D, you’re on your way to achieving a perfect score, the holy grail of the Upper East Side prep-school world of Bader’s play.
Though she does not “test well,” no doubt the 17-year-old Jamie (Alison Pill) knows the myth of the Grail. At her elite private school, the precocious girl took Early Church History, a/k/a Popes for Dopes, in fifth grade. In high school, she studied philosophy by sleeping with a famous intellectual. She does her best math when calculating her cut of a drug deal. From this raw material, her SAT coach Clark (Kel O’Neill) must sculpt a test-busting phenom. After they meet cute in Jamie’s luscious boudoir/study (Lauren Helpern’s sumptuously appointed set), sexual tension vibrates beneath their verbal barbs. Under Jamie’s clever interrogation, Clark—an impecunious grad student—reveals that he has made a breathtaking all-or-nothing wager with her father that Jamie will achieve a 1600 on her SATs.
Jamie labels this a “Faustian bargain.” When Clark demurs, she builds a convincing analogy, just like the ones in their practice test book. Their rapid-fire repartee shoots typical test vocab words back and forth in witty exchanges. For the heritage of this kind of coupling, think Pygmalion. Or conjure any old flick where a street-smart Clark Gable gives some hoity-toity society dame a few real-life lessons. Now update.
The play’s press people tout it as investigating issues of “entitlement, intelligence, the pressure to succeed, and the nature of risk.” If only. Bader cops out on all these issues. Clark chastises Jamie for the carelessness of the rich after she trashes a precious Ming vase because she could. Turns out she didn’t really break it, but was protecting a cad of a boyfriend.
The playwright does sketch in what should be a poignant family background for each of her likable protagonists. Clark counts words compulsively because the strategy helped him deal with his parents’ brutal arguments; Jamie fucks up as a ploy to gain attention from jet-setting Dad and workaholic Mom. Pill, pert and feisty, and O’Neill, a hyper sad sack, strike sparks as they spar, but neither manages the underside of vulnerability that would make these lovers more satisfying as people. Julie Kramer directs this New Georges production with a high-energy pacing that whips up the laughs but short-changes the potential three-dimensionality of these kids.
As Jamie and Clark race toward their denouement, the plot twists escalate from the improbable to the ridiculous. But, to borrow a few words from their SAT test, while the play’s action may be facile, Pill and O’Neill are so affable and their wrangling so piquant that you hanker to capitulate to this thoroughly recreative endeavor. —Francine Russo
The Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Molière’s Don Juan is often treated as a tragedy erroneously disguised as a farce. The philosophical weight of the play regularly gets the better of its buoyant wit and style. Sure, its ideas are heady, but is that reason enough for the dour approach favored by most directors and academics? Only those with too frothy a definition of comedy would insist that serious thematic substance necessarily means serious drama. In its withering assessment of the tyranny of our appetites, Molière’s merriment has profound intellectual bite. He penetrates our stony defenses by using our own laughter against us. Even in his darkest of human diagnoses—and Don Juan presents a truly fatal case—the playwright can’t resist opting for the dialectical agility of comic play. Ponderousness, he knew, was best left to those supporting characters clucking their hypocritical morality in the tidal rush of the audience’s hilarity.
Director Bartlett Sher’s production of Don Juan tries to serve as a corrective to the tragic school of Molière. The result, however, is something equally ludicrous, a screwball version that’s all gags and no thought. From Christopher Hampton’s elbow-nudging “translation” (which demands a guffaw with every stupid use of the word “fuck”) to the clownish mugging grotesquely distorting the features of the cast, this Theatre for a New Audience revival illustrates just how difficult it is to arrive at the proper Molière-ian balance between gravity and levity.
The erratic intrusion of meta-theatrical antics certainly doesn’t help matters. Sher, who did such a bang-up job directing Harley Granville Barker’s Waste for TFANA, has a stage prompter on hand fixing the scenery and feeding lines. Two actors, planted in front-row seats, are forced to begin their scene with an “impromptu” make-out before goofing their way onto the stage. This unfunny fourth-wall meltdown subsides in the second act, though it’s never clear what place it had in the first, save satisfying the anxious demands of Hampton’s “Is-it-funny-enough-for-you?” adaptation.
Byron Jennings makes a rather ghoulish-looking Don Juan, more Marquis de Sade than Molière in his polymorphously perverse hauteur. Even with a translation that risks contemporary anachronism at every turn, our promiscuous protagonist need not conform to contemporary notions of sex appeal. The Don’s seductiveness stems from his commitment to his own carnal satisfactions—he knows what he likes and his pull is that of timeless greed and selfishness. The dandily attired Jennings, however, emphasizes the Don’s aristocratic power at the expense of his character’s connoisseur-like relationship to women—the true source of his power to entrance even the most innocent of convent girls.
Set for much of the action in the Don’s wardrobe (abstractly designed by Christopher Akerlind), the production clearly wants to uncloset the humor of Molière’s most serious comedy. The relentless buffoonery, however, proves ultimately as wearying as the dullest French professor’s classroom diatribe. —Charles McNulty
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 1, 2003