Patrick Jones and Sara Barker inBetween Worlds(Photo © Ursula Scherrer)
Patrick Jones and Sara Barker in
Between Worlds
(Photo © Ursula Scherrer)
People awakening from a coma have sometimes described seeing a blinding white light, as if they were about to enter Heaven. But maybe they were just remembering a waiting room in what could be a hospital, a hotel, or perhaps even a lunatic asylum. In Between Worlds, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, coma victims arrive at such a waiting room via an elevator. They pass the time talking with one another or pursuing information from an elusive doctor until it's time for them to take another elevator ride, either back down to earth or to whatever lies beyond. The Chekhov Theatre Ensemble presents the American premiere of this somewhat derivative work, directed by Ragnar Freidank. While both the play and the production are flawed, there are enough worthwhile elements here to make the show intriguing.

The most obvious literary precursor to Schmitt's work is Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. Sartre's existentialist vision of the afterlife posited that "Hell is other people," and we get a similar feeling from Between Worlds. The individuals we first meet seem designed to get on each other's nerves. The Chairman (Max Evjen) is a rather flatly written character obsessed with material wealth and social status. In contrast, there's Jesse (Andrea Seigel), who spent her life as a cleaning lady, and defines the difference between their respective positions as follows: "The chairman makes the office dirty and the cleaning lady cleans it." Also on hand is The Magus (T. Scott Lilly), whom the Chairman dismisses as a "fairground fortune teller." The arrival of Colin (Patrick Jones) prompts the others to reveal a little more about themselves and how they came to be in this place. Yes, the exposition is a bit heavy-handed; but once it's through, the play picks up.

Dr. S (Jennifer Shirley), who is seemingly in charge, claims that even she doesn't know what happens to those who take the elevator "up" when the time comes; all she can definitively say is that they don't come back down. As the characters wait to see if they'll live or die, they have little else to do but become better acquainted and perhaps even work out some of the life issues that they never resolved down on earth.

The cast is uneven. Jones turns in a terrifically understated performance. Shirley lends Dr. S an outward brusqueness but nevertheless manages to convey an inner fragility that becomes increasingly evident as she begins to bend the rules and take an active interest in her patients. On the other hand, Evjen annoyingly declaims the majority of his lines in a loud voice and fails to flesh out his admittedly stereotypical character. Seigel has a buoyant energy but is likewise unable to make Jesse multi-dimensional. Lilly has a bit more to work with but doesn't do much with his role. Sara Barker, who plays another new arrival named Laura, has a vibrant stage presence and radiates innocence.

Laura and Colin eventually begin to fall in love, and here the play takes a turn from existentialist meditation to cheesy love story. Despite the strengths of their individual performances, Jones and Barker don't have much chemistry, which makes their budding romance a bit tough to swallow. However, the plot development raises the stakes for both Dr. S and the Magus, who are forced to make difficult decisions for themselves in order to insure the couple's happiness.

Timothy Mackabee's set captures the rather clinical feel of the play's environment; it is supplemented by Russel Drapkin's lighting, which incorporates overhead fluorescents. Margaret Pine's sound design is effective, particularly in the moments immediately preceding the arrival or departure of a patient. An ethereal yet somewhat elemental sound is heard -- full of wind, the mechanical hum of the elevator, the squawking of birds, and other noises.

While the dialogue is not always believable, portions of the play are quite funny, and Schmitt wrestles with issues of faith and the afterlife in an interesting manner. Between Worlds ends on a fittingly ambiguous note, and the audience is left to ponder what happens next.