CAMBRIDGE -- Who knew that French philosophical drama could be this much fun?
Director Jerry Mouawad did when he staged Jean-Paul Sartre's ''No Exit" on a tilting stage at the Imago Theatre in Portland, Ore., in 1998. American Repertory Theatre cofounder Rob Orchard saw the production and invited Mouawad to go to hell in a Cambridge handbasket.
As the ART production begins, it even seems as if this ''No Exit," in which three mismatched people share a room in hell, is going to be too much fun for its own good. Remo Airaldi enters as the valet, navigating the tilt of the stage, which shifts according to the actors' movements, as if he's about to mount a bucking bronco, followed by Will LeBow as the first of the down-below denizens.
Airaldi's mugging is usually more in control than it is here. Every step carries a facial exclamation point, and he punctuates his dialogue with LeBow's character, Garcin, about the ground rules of hell with hysterical laughter. Many in the audience obviously found this amusing; I found it mostly annoying.
In his 1944 play, Sartre dramatized his existential philosophy. Garcin and the two women who join him recount what sentenced them to hell, acting out Sartre's themes of why existence is more important than essence -- basically, actions speak louder than words -- and how freedom and salvation are always possibilities, albeit frightening ones, even when you're locked in a room with two people who seem like your torturers.
If you were an actor, you couldn't do much better than being locked in a room with LeBow, Paula Plum, and Karen MacDonald. You might even think you'd gone to heaven instead of the other place. They are all local treasures, and the forced intimacy of ''No Exit" brings out the best in them as they both display their comic talents and mine darker psychological territories.
They also bring out the best in Sartre. It's when the valet leaves that the real fun begins. LeBow's Garcin is a pacifist journalist who fled Rio in wartime rather than stand and fight for his principles; Plum's hard-as-nails Inez died in a murder-suicide with her female lover and now has the hots for MacDonald's frilly Estelle, who turns out to be a murderer and now only has eyes for Garcin.
Meanwhile, the stage -- bare except for three small sofas -- goes up and down like a see-saw or throws the characters to the floor to underscore their shifting equilibrium, adding liveliness to a situation that is, well, dead. Often the effect is comic, but there are times where it adds skin-tingling tension, as when MacDonald is lifted skyward while describing the act that condemned her to hell.
But are they condemned? Sartre holds out the possibility that there is an exit: They can walk out the door; they can try to help one another. The three actors are particularly adept at hitting the highs and lows that Sartre puts in their paths as they go from moments of compassion and compromise to lashing out at one another sadistically. Plum, in particular, has a field day as a femme fatale prowling the perimeter of the stage in pursuit of MacDonald while sneering at Garcin.
Sartre believed that literature would outlive philosophy, though in ''No Exit" the two are as inseparable as the three main characters. It's easy to see how ''No Exit" might have influenced Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
But Sartre's not in their league as a dramatist. In his determination to make the characters represent his existential philosophy, his dialogue can get awfully stiff, even though Mouawad and the actors take colloquial liberties with Stuart Gilbert's classic translation.
Still, as the play progresses, one gets used to the occasional woodenness. When the acting is as good as it is here and the production is this spirited, Sartrean salvation is at hand.
Even in hell.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.