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This double-bill of Sartre and Williams marks the advent of a new Boston "off-Broadway" repertory theatre. Judging by the first production, the group seems destined to be more long-lived than its red-inked fore-bearers. The major point in its favor is that this is a fairly limited venture with a small staff and a converted attic successfully adapted into a small theatre in the "square," seating about 140 people on both sides of an unelevated floor space.
The group is composed largely of graduates of the Boston University Theatre Arts Division. And both plays presented in the current production bear the mark of the drama school--they are "set pieces" of the nature of Actors' Studio artifice, carefully characterized and depending for effect almost entirely on acting rather than spectacle. The production then is an almost academic but successful exercise in stage-craft.
The major item on the program, Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, is a highly complex and intellectual vision purveying a vision of hell as "other people" in perhaps unnecessarily melodramatic terms. The central characters are so exaggerated as human types that only a considerable dramatic achievement renders the characters and situation believable even as fantasy, while at the same time serving the author's somewhat muddy propagandistic purpose.
The three characters of Sartre's morality play find themselves in a hotel room where they must tear each other's guts out in spite and frustration like hideous ghouls from Dante. One is a Lesbian who seduced a happily-married woman and drove her to commit suicide. The other woman in this drawing-room Hades is far less willing to acknowledge her evil. She has killed her baby in front of her lover and he blew his brains out afterwards. The third and most intelligible character is a "fearless" journalist who helped himself to all the indulgences due a hard-boiled hero. But when danger approached, he turned tail and ran.
The playwright makes each the torturer of the other two, and yet they are absolutely dependent upon one another. The journalist must win the respect of the Lesbian because she is the only courageous person left to him and thus his "salvation." She desires the love of the flutter-brained coquette who being devotedly hetero-sexual, will not yield. This woman's vanity demands the Lesbian as a mirror because there are no mirrors in hell. The coquette, in turn, asks love of the journalist, who only wants to prove to himself that he is not a coward, yet he cannot make love to her with the Lesbian watching and taunting. And so on.
The cast develops these complex and highly subtle relationships into really powerful theatre. Perhaps the best acting is done by John Heffernan who indeed seems ideal for his role with features and a manner that spell out the intelligent, and yet vulnerable decadence that Sartre had in mind. Rigmore Christiansen does equally well as the Lesbian, matching Heffernan's force at every point. Jane Cronin seems less remarkable than the other two, largely because her role as the "love-object" is more passive. And as a bellboy in Hell, Richard Galvin provides the suitable mixture of insolence and irony.
The one-act curtain raiser by Tennessee Williams, This Property is Condemned, is equally well-performed, but the play is merely a minor re-working of the inevitable Williams theme of a woman who lives in a world of illusion. The boy who meets the tawdry heroine on a railroad embankment merely establishes the situation. Limited though it is, the part is well-handled by Walter McGinn. Jane Cronin is entrancing as she delivers this bubble-frail poetic monologue without benefit of scenery. She provides an object-lesson in good acting.
Though not entertainment for the millions, this double bill cannot fail to excite anyone interested in the art of the drama. This is not student acting. It is as sharply professional as anything on the boards in the Boston area in a long time.
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