The lyrical sensibility at work in the delicately wrought Exit/Entrance no doubt comes from the poetic instincts of playwright Aidan Mathews, who has published three volumes of verse. There are beautiful passages in this two-act 1988 work about two Irish couples, both named Charles and Helen. Although the language often comes at the expense of dramatic momentum, the piece invites rumination. Each couple inhabits half the play. The first couple is elderly, in their 60s, and taking stock of their lives. They chat about their love of Greece and their time there many years before as part of their honeymoon excursion. But there is a melancholy feeling as well. Helen becomes upset that Charles won’t answer the phone, which rings periodically. She believes it’s their son Philip calling (named for Philip of Macedon). Charles becomes splenetic at her insistence, and lets his guard down momentarily for a slur that suggests his son is gay. Yet there’s something more seriously awry in their relationship. Helen is, perhaps, too overmastered by Charles. Has it always been so?
The act is an extended reverie about the couple’s youth and the promise of a lifetime of happiness, as well as a realization that time has ravaged them and there's probably no contentment ahead. There’s minimal action; the play develops through dialogue, and lighting designer Chris Dallos superbly sets the mood of this elegiac piece with waning winter light and car headlights periodically rolling in the window. The only interruption to their conversation comes from the apartment next door, where a young couple has moved in. Helen has met them in the hallway and spoken to the woman; she thinks the youngsters are nice, and she was struck by the smell of tea from their tea chests. But they’ve been hammering on the wall to hang some of their things, and Charles finally becomes so irritated he hammers back.
In Act II a young couple, also named Charles and Helen, are unpacking tea crates to move into a new apartment. They bang nails into the wall to put up their pictures, and they too rhapsodize over Greece. In addition, Helen fears an interruption to their evening by a third party, Stephen, who seems to be a constant visitor. She beseeches Charles not to let Stephen enter their lives on this night, as they unpack crates smelling of tea, and light candles for a romantic evening.
Although the play moves quietly along, there’s an underlying tension in M. Burke Walker’s production. Unlike the published script, there is no date for the acts, and that adds intrigue. Are we seeing the same couple some 40 years apart, first at the end of their lives and then at the beginning, à la Harold Pinter’s Betrayal? Or is the second couple inhabiting the room next to the first one? Are their names just by chance Charles and Helen, and are they merely a timeless parallel to their unseen neighbors? For instance, younger Helen (a warm, luminous Lara Hillier) mentions a conversation in the hallway with an older woman neighbor, but that might happen at any place or time. Is the universality of youth’s hopes and age’s infirmities what Mathews is showing?
The second half Charles (David L. Townsend) is, unfortunately, annoyingly pretentious, and one wonders why Helen puts up with him (though, indeed, the elder Helen clearly is a mollifier—if she is the same person). Charles II blathers about various Greek places like Epidauros, and he calls Helen “my little Penelope,” to which she responds, “Not Penelope. I don’t want to be Penelope.” Penelope, of course, was Odysseus’s wife, who remained faithful—and asexual—during his absence, and the atmosphere of unconsummated sex is thick in their interaction.
Unfortunately, the younger couple has a childish streak that manifests itself in an awkward scene with puppets. Nor can Townsend make his Charles appealing: he’s a twit, and his personality defies a connection, even over 40 years, to that of the later Charles. Helen’s continual worry that Stephen might come suggests a rival to her affection for Charles and the possibility that he’s homosexual—but older Charles’s anti-gay slur toward Philip seems to undermine the hint that as a young man he would have had any same-sex affections.
Yet Mathews’s point may be that time changes people in unexpected ways, not merely physically—by cruelly afflicting them with illness and a loss of hope and dignity—but perhaps also by bringing two disparate people, who shouldn’t have married, closer together. Though the unions of both couples seem imperfect, they leave a lasting impression.