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Posted on Mon, Aug. 16, 2004

Answer in search of a question

By Mark Lowry

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

French playwright Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 No Exit is one of the most analyzed and referenced plays of the 20th century.

In it, three people who have realized they are dead are eternally stuck in a drawing room. Sartre's existentialist theme comes from his most famous line, "Hell is other people." As the characters investigate their nothingness, each learns that the other two are prerequisite to creating an illusion about himself or herself.

Sartre's man-makes-himself philosophy is intended to provoke questions, but does it need a formal response? No. But Kevin Ash's play The Exit strives for one anyway.

Ash, former artistic director of New York's West End Theatre, heads up the new Labyrinth Theatre. It's a ministry of Richardson's Arapaho United Methodist Church, billed as a "thinking church" where members are urged to seek an "intellectually rich faith through questioning and dialogue, experience and reason."

The characters are Sartre's, as is a good chunk of the text, which has been newly translated. Garcin's (Ray Gestaut) biggest crime is cowardice. Inez (Jennifer Engler, a new acting and movement professor at Texas Christian University) is a caustic lesbian writer. And Estelle (Jamie Korthase) is a narcissistic celebrity.

After an initial lobby scene, the characters are escorted by the valet (Jarod Warren) up the elevator and into the room with three citrus-colored deco chairs and a letter opener.

Under Ash's direction, The Exit is beautifully acted as the sense of uneasiness builds through one-upmanship, frustration and self-realization.

The Exit takes a pro-Christian but nonevangelical angle. Gestaut, a former minister who has lost his faith, announces, "I die with conviction, it'll prove that I'm a man of God." In the end, the door opens and, unlike in Sartre's original, two characters exit. The suggestion is that redemption is possible through trust and forgiveness.

It's an intriguing concept and a promising theatrical debut. But ultimately, the search for a response that Sartre didn't need feels like a futile exercise.

The Exit

• Through Sept. 5.

• 7 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

• Arapaho United Methodist Church, 1400 W. Arapaho Road, Richardson.

• $25

• For reservations and more information, call (972) 231-1012 or go to www.thelabyrinththeatre.org

  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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