I saw a preview matinee performance of Exit/Entrance by Aidan Mathews at 59E59 Theaters last Sunday and I'm glad I did. While at first blush, this intricately structured portrayal of a couple’s 40 year life together may seem little more than a slim reflection on the vicissitudes of life, its inevitable disappointments, and the inexorable debilitation that comes with age, on further consideration, there appears to be much more to this play than first meets the eye.
To begin with, the play’s structure is intriguing, blurring the distinction between spatial and temporal separation and between reality and imagination. In the first act, Exit, we are introduced to “Charles, perhaps 70” (Greg Mullavey) and “Helen, his wife, probably 65” (Linda Thorson). In the second act, Entrance, we meet “Charles, a young man, perhaps 30” (David L. Townsend) and “Helen, his lover, probably 25” (Lara Hillier). But are these two different couples, living in adjoining apartments, separated only by a thin wall? Or are they really one and the same couple, the latter pair nothing more than a 40 year old memory in the failing minds of the former? An argument can be made on either side but the preponderance of evidence, I think, suggests that it is time and memory, not spatial reality, that separates the two couples.
To be sure, it initially appears that these are four distinct personages. In the first act, we hear the elder Helen informing Charles of having met their new younger neighbors who have just moved into the building. And we hear the sounds of nails being hammered into the walls next door as pictures are hung. In the second act, we seem to get confirmation of all this as the young couple chat about having encountered the older Helen, consider inviting her and her husband in for tea and scones, and hang the pictures we could only imagine in Act I. On the other hand, is it nothing more than coincidence that both men are named Charles, that both are classics scholars, that both women are named Helen, that the elder couple have a son named Philip conceived on their trip to Greece while the younger couple contemplate the conception of a child of their own (also to be named Philip, of course) whilst Charles (the younger) dreams of their own potential trip to Greece? But the conclusive evidence that this is a memory play about one couple rather than an interwoven tale of two neighboring couples is provided by the playwright himself who notes that “The action takes place in the living-room of an apartment in a period town-house.” It is noteworthy, I think, that the action does not take place in two adjoining living-rooms but in “the living-room….” [emphasis added].
In the first act, Charles and Helen reminisce on their lives together, recalling a number of felicitous events ranging from their honeymoon in the south of France to the delivery of Charles’ most successful lecture to the publication of his first book to their youthful exuberance at seeing the Acropolis for the first time followed by their night of lovemaking which likely resulted in the conception of their son, Philip. But their pleasant memories are more than overshadowed by the disappointments and tragedies of their lives: Charles never did publish a second book; his physical health is failing following a serious operation in his earlier years; Helen suffered some sort of nervous breakdown in the past, now euphemistically referred to as her “tiredness,” and her present mental faculties clearly are waning; and their son Philip is an alcoholic (possibly) and a homosexual (probably) who exhibits little concern or feeling for his parents. Against this sad backdrop, Charles and Helen seek to affirm some control over their lives, if only to the extent of closing the curtains.
In the second act, the younger Charles and Helen prepare for their future together, unpacking their dishes, hanging pictures, sorting and arranging books. Helen presses Charles to marry and envisions a family with him while Charles studiously avoids commitment. A sense develops that marriage and family will occur inevitably, simply with the passage of time, whether or not Charles truly wills it, and that their lives will then evolve (or devolve) into the depressing spectacle we envisioned in Act I.
The playwright has much else to convey and generally does so well and cleverly. Whereas Charles proclaims his grand intention to write in the future, Helen simply writes in the present – although her writing is simply a practical shopping list rather that a critique of classical philosophy. When Helen has an itch on her back, she finds that she is unable to reach it until she borrows Charles’ copy of Plato and scratches it with that – perhaps the best use that has been made of the book for some time. When Charles rambles on about traveling to Greece and making Helen his “Helen of Troy,” she responds: “I don’t want to be Helen of Troy. I want you to be you and I want to be me.” We come to understand what makes Helen tick and to feel sympathy for her condition. We come to understand Charles, too, but it is more difficult to empathize with him: Helen’s tragedy seems to be largely a result of her love for Charles and her having hitched her wagon to his falling star but Charles’ tragedy seems more a result simply of his own mediocrity and self-delusion.
In terms of the play’s performers, one actor, Linda Thorson, deserves to be singled out for special acclaim. Thorson does an extraordinary job in her portrayal of the older Helen and, if nothing else, this play is worth seeing for her performance alone.