As I watched Yasmina Reza's new play, "Life (x) 3," I was reminded of a French TV quiz show called "Chiffres et Lettres (Figures and Letters)."
The contestants had to choose either a set of letters, from which they had to make as many words as possible, or a set of numbers, from which they had to create as many viable equations as possible. In "Life (x) 3," the French-born Reza, author of the Tony-winning "Art," has opted for numbers. She has written three treatments of the same material. Her characters are two couples. The men are scientists, one of whom, Henry, is finishing a huge research project he hopes will gain him a corporate advance. The other is his boss, Hubert, whose attitude toward him is hard to gauge. Hubert and his wife, Inez, have come to dinner a night before Henry and his wife, Sonia, expected them. The hosts have been fighting over how to handle their whining 6-year-old, who doesn't want to go to sleep. In one treatment, Hubert treats Henry brutally. In two others, he makes a play for Sonia. In one, she rebuffs him. While the three takes on the same situation are amusing, we cannot say at the end of the third that we understand the characters better. It is not like "Rashomon," the famous Japanese movie in which a situation is seen from differing points of view. The film raised questions about the nature of truth and perception. Here the situation and the characters are modified in each take. Our understanding is not heightened or even challenged. The performances nevertheless are wonderfully polished. Helen Hunt has a sure sense of comedy as Sonia, especially when she and Henry argue over their demanding child. (A weakness of the play is that a couple that has been together this long would not be having such preliminary negotiations over bedtime policy.) As Henry, John Turturro occasionally vents his anger in a manner too heated, too American. But he, too, is funny. As Inez, Linda Emond is the most convincingly French in the least developed role. Brent Spiner handles Hubert's nastiness with true Gallic hauteur. Mark Thompson's sets and costumes are stylish, Matthew Warchus' direction assured. "Life" may seem more like an exercise than a full-fledged play, but there is something diverting about its marvelous surface polish.
The balances of chance are amazing, making "if only" one of the most pregnant phrases in any language.
Those unpredictable eddies in fate and the human experience provide the flimsy base for the French playwright Yasmina Reza's "Life (x) 3," which opened last night at Circle in the Square.
Following the well-worn paths of J.B. Priestley and Alan Ayckbourn, Reza offers three views of the same basic situation, each filtered through a skein of varying circumstances.
But unlike those English predecessors, or, for that matter, the Gwyneth Paltrow movie "Sliding Doors," in Reza's parallel universes, the end result remains much the same.
Character rules here, not chance. Shakespeare's Cassius in his "Dear Brutus" speech would have approved.
Henry (John Turturro), a French research scientist, and his wife, Sonia (Helen Hunt), are trying to put their infant son to sleep when the doorbell rings in their Paris apartment.
It is Hubert (Brent Spiner) and Inez (Linda Emond), who've arrived a day early for dinner. Chaos and hastily mustered cookies ensue.
Hubert, like Henry, is an astrophysicist - and is in a position to give him the recommendation that would help Henry's faltering career.
Henry is on tenterhooks because, not having published any scholarly research for years, he has just finished a paper on the nature of galaxy halos.
Alas, Hubert brings the news that a team of Mexican scientists has that morning published a paper disastrously similar to the unlucky Henry's.
There is also a great deal of ancillary tension. Henry and Sonia are at odds in their parenting strategies, Hubert and Inez loathe each other, and there is a palpable sexual tension between Sonia and Hubert.
With her customary team - loyal English translator and fellow playwright Christopher Hampton; her customary crisp and adept English-language director, Matthew Warchus; and designer Mark Thompson - Reza gives us three variations on that theme.
Each could have happened, and one probably did. The trouble is, you don't really care which.
In both "Art" and "The Unexpected Man," Reza was more successful in her explorations of the games people play and the way they play them.
"Life" just doesn't have quite that same thrill of recognition - that sense of "Yes, I have seen and heard people do just that." Here, her four sophisticated combatants seem more like puppets than people.
That's certainly not the fault of the splendid acting. Just to hear a gloriously insecure Turturro stagger his way through the phrase, "What are you talking about?" is pure pleasure.
Hunt's almost virginal sensuality has rarely been put to better use, Spiner is a furnace of overweening professional and sexual bravado, and Emond seethes with pain and resentment.
Unfortunately, this dinner party destined not to happen also seems a play doomed not to work.
Yasmina Reza may have the tidiest mind of any popular playwright working today. It's not that Ms. Reza, the author of that internationally beloved trifle called ''Art,'' doesn't acknowledge that life can be fuzzy, mysterious and downright messy. Her ''Life x 3,'' which opened last night in a damagingly miscast production at the Circle in the Square Theater, might even be called a comedy of chaos.
But if the world that Ms. Reza describes is filled with snarled ambiguities, her plays are as orderly as an obsessive-compulsive's sock drawer. Originally written (and produced) in French, they are usually slender sitcoms, elegantly streaked with troubling shadows and shaped with Cartesian symmetry. They are plays that suggest reassuringly that human depths can, after all, be measured by a slide rule.
Unfortunately, Ms. Reza's American fans are unlikely to derive much comfort from the awkward New York production of ''Life x 3'' (''Trois Versions de la Vie''), which features the marquee presences of Helen Hunt and John Turturro. This fuguelike consideration of two haute bourgeois couples, who act out three different versions of the same disastrous dinner party, is in many ways the usual ingratiating Reza-ish cocktail of middlebrow comedy and highbrow references.
The play has the same adroit translator (Christopher Hampton) and director (Matthew Warchus) as her previous productions in New York, ''Art'' and ''The Unexpected Man.'' Like those comedies, ''Life x 3'' is considerately short (about 90 minutes). And when it was first seen in London at the Royal National Theater two years ago, it had critics beaming with approval.
Yet theatergoers are likely to leave the Circle in the Square feeling baffled, which is certainly not the way anyone felt after seeing the easygoing, Tony-winning ''Art.'' Though the first segment of ''Life x 3'' is greeted with gratified laughter, a moment comes shortly after when you can sense brows creasing throughout the house. One great big ''Huh?'' seems to hover in the air, and the show never gets the audience back on its side.
This is mostly because all but one of the four cast members are themselves unable to handle the transitions the play demands. ''Life x 3'' is indeed set up like an algebraic equation, but with human variables. The elements that make up the personalities of the four characters are rearranged three times (as is the furniture in Mark Thompson's modishly geometric set), shifting the balance and the outcome in the power struggles among them.
The basis for these variations is sitcom simple: one couple shows up for dinner at the Parisian apartment of another couple on the wrong night. The dismayed, unprepared hosts are Henry (Mr. Turturro), a research astrophysicist, and his wife, Sonia (Ms. Hunt), a financial lawyer. Their unexpected guests are Hubert (Brent Spiner), a more successful colleague of Henry's, and Inez (Linda Emond), his eternally resentful wife.
Each of the play's three sections uses other ingredients that might have come from an old ''Dick Van Dyke Show.'' There is nothing to eat in the house except a few random snack foods, but there is plenty of wine, which means people will get drunker than they would otherwise. Inez has an embarrassing run in her stocking. And Henry and Sonia's unseen 6-year-old son, Arnaud, keeps making distracting noises from his bedroom.
Henry and Hubert are not astrophysicists for nothing, however. The characters' comic rivalries and hostilities -- professional, sexual and parental -- are set off by a sense of cosmic infinitude that makes them seem petty and rather sad. Ms. Reza increases the darkness quotient with each new section of the play. So while the first scene is an exercise in angry slapstick, the last has a brooding quality that calls for (and gets) a wistful, melancholy soundtrack in its final moments.
Mr. Turturro and Ms. Hunt are quite funny in the first playlet's opening sequence, as they become more and more exasperated with Arnaud's wails for attention. But while both have done beautifully shaded work on screen, there is little variety in their performances here, which is fatal to the very premise of ''Life x 3.''
Mr. Turturro plays the anguished schlemiel Henry like Danny Thomas on a rampage, and he almost never shifts into a lower gear. Ms. Hunt's trademark naturalistic delivery, with its flat inflections, chafes against the stylized archness of her lines.
And while she looks smashing in both a plain bathrobe and a soignée hostess ensemble, she exudes little of the vixenish sensuality her character is said to possess. And it's hard to take her flirtation with the resolutely hearty Mr. Spiner at all seriously.
Ms. Emond, however, again proves herself to be one of the essential treasures of the New York theater. As the alternately officious and submissive Inez, she conveys her character's contradictions and changes with an unlikely combination of understatement and clarity. Even the way her hair hangs in her face seems to speak volumes about Inez's states of mind. And she does discreet marvels with the business of concealing that run in her stocking.
With the other members of the cast, all the highfalutin talk about the conundrums of space and science in ''Life x 3'' seems like window dressing for a rudimentary comedy. But Ms. Emond keeps subtly changing the temperature of Inez's character in ways that do indeed suggest the imponderable equations within one personality.
When toward the play's end Inez starts to worry about that really big question, the nothingness of the universe, you actually feel that she has earned the right to do so. Her companions, in the meantime, still seem stuck in a more limited realm where life is set to the rhythms of a laugh track.
Don't tell Sonia about the joys of having it all. The working mom in Yasmina Reza's new play, Life (x) 3 has a good job and a seemingly loving family.
But as played by Oscar winner Helen Hunt in this brisk, absorbing production that opened Monday at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre, Sonia is a tightly wrapped bundle of nerves threatening to come undone at any moment.
In the hands of a more affected, less attractive actress, the role might have been insufferable. But Hunt, looking lovelier than ever, gives a completely natural and thoroughly seductive performance. The character may not appear as warm as others she has played, but Hunt manages to imbue her with the mix of laid-back flirtatiousness and unassuming wit that distinguishes her best work.
To say Hunt is the most appealing member of Life's intimate ensemble should not reflect badly on her colleagues, whose parts initially seem even less inviting. John Turturro adds to his ever-growing catalog of strident geeks as Sonia's husband, Henry, an astrophysicist who hasn't published anything in three years. Then there's Hubert, a more established and self-satisfied scientist played with elegant smugness by Brent Spiner, and Inez, Hubert's high-strung, long-suffering wife, sharply portrayed by Linda Emond.
That Life remains as endearing as it is thoughtful is a tribute not only to the cast but to the graceful, incisive work of director Matthew Warchus, a regular Reza colleague, and the playwright herself, who characteristically seeks to explore the quirks that can make everyday life both ridiculous and sublime.
Here, the author of Art presents three possible developments stemming from one scenario: Hubert and Inez show up for dinner at Sonia and Henry's apartment on the wrong evening, catching the latter couple utterly unprepared and, of course, frantic. Each scene finds the characters in the same quandary, and uses similar language and imagery. The script, translated from Reza's French by Christopher Hampton, rearranges words as distinctive as "lugubrious" and references ranging from torn pantyhose to the flatness of galaxy halos (Inez's and Henry's obsessions, respectively).
Yet the conversation is never as willfully esoteric as it sometimes seemed in Reza's previous New York outing, The Unexpected Man. Instead, the disparate setups provide accessible insights into different sides of each character and the forces that alternately motivate and paralyze them. In the end, they all seem more, well, three-dimensional, and therefore more sympathetic.
Christopher T. Cronin's sound design, Hugh Vanstone's lighting and Gary Yershon's electronic music provide a stark, jarring mood that both mirrors the manic anxieties of Reza's characters and contrasts with the delicate humanity they ultimately reveal.
It's a fair amount of emotional ground to cover in one 90-minute play, but Reza and her company generally do an artful job.
Changing the channel doesn't make the picture much clearer at "Life (x) 3," a new play by "Art" author Yasmina Reza that offers three views of a disintegrating dinner party without supplying much reason for us to be glad we're invited. Intermittently amusing but more often wearying, the play certainly offers a many-sided look at the potential miseries of modern marriage: Two couples aggravate each other three times over in the course of one act, meaning "Life (x) 3" gives us the dubious opportunity of soaking up many different flavors of marital angst. The cast, adorned by TV and film star Helen Hunt, does what it can -- on occasion it's a little too much -- to keep us entertained, but the play's repetitive structure saps rather than amplifies its limited appeal.
The play is set in the living room of the Paris apartment that is home to Hunt's Sonia and John Turturro's Henry -- and, most apparently, their tyrannical 6-year-old son. The chic designer furniture of Mark Thompson's set has been colonized by a battalion of toys, and as the play opens, the tyke is engaging in guerrilla tactics to avoid bedtime. In a protracted scene that builds to a fine comic boil, Henry conducts negotiations with the boy, whose wails can be heard from offstage, while Sonia attempts to finish up some work.
Their argument turns ugly, with Sonia scornfully comparing Henry's attempts to propitiate the boy to his "obsequious" behavior toward Hubert Finidori, a colleague of Henry's (he's a physicist) they are expecting for dinner tomorrow night. Cue the clang of a doorbell: Turns out some wires got crossed, and it's Hubert (Brent Spiner) and his wife Inez (Linda Emond) on the doorstep, expecting dinner.
Dinner of a sort is served, an appetizer of cookies followed by an entree of Cheez-Its. These delicacies are accompanied by several bottles of Sancerre that have the predictable effect of bringing out the worst in everyone. The supercilious Hubert casually lets it be known that the groundbreaking article that Henry hoped would jumpstart his stalled career has suddenly been superseded. Henry becomes unhinged, while continuing to display the servility that so aggravates Sonia. She accuses Hubert of malicious intention; he laughs it off while making eyes at her. Inez tries to keep the peace while defending herself from her husband's petty humiliations.
The snipes and jabs are sometimes well-phrased -- Emond, who gives the evening's most satisfying performance as the fragile Inez, gets one of the biggest laughs when she observes, "My husband can only amuse himself at my expense. I can't imagine how he'd function socially if it wasn't for me." But Reza's dialogue, translated with studied eloquence by Christopher Hampton, often has the glib sound the French refer to as l'esprit de l'escalier -- the witty zingers you wish you'd said at the time but didn't. And for the most part, the spectacle of watching these characters lash out with such dexterous flair is not nearly as amusing as it is unpleasant.
The play's tripartite structure would seem, at first, to offer a reprieve. The first scene concludes with Hubert and Inez retreating from the disastrous evening, and after a throb or two of Gary Yershon's electronic music and a flash of lasers, we are back where we started, with Sonia and Henry trying to settle the little one down. Ding-dong! The Finidoris are here, once again a day early.
But the evening proceeds along the same course as before, with a few, not particularly illuminating, changes. This time, Henry works up the nerve to gleefully throw off his bootlicking demeanor. This time, Hubert makes a real move for Sonia. This time, Inez ingests rather more wine. But the dynamics are essentially the same, as is the outcome. Rather than develop a diverging scenario, or deepen the emotional impact of its initial one, the play essentially repeats itself, to diminished effect.
The third trawl through the same territory is slightly more benign -- as if everyone was too tired for a good fight -- but the animating idea behind the play's circular structure never makes itself apparent. Expectations that Reza will use her intriguing conceit to examine how the course of life can be profoundly altered by a seemingly inconsequential evening are defeated. At one point, Hubert muses on how "apparently empty moments stay incised in the memory, trivial words can engage your whole being," but the sour exchanges on view here seem to be little more than examples of everyday animosities, personal and professional, to be forgotten when the hangover evaporates.
It's true there are philosophical musings scattered throughout the play ("Our life is full of regrets for an integrated world, nostalgia for some lost wholeness, nostalgia which is accentuated by the fragmentation of the world brought about by modern life"), but they tend to fizzle like wet sparklers rather than shed light on any larger meanings, since the characters retailing them do not have the substance of those in Reza's superior "Art" and "The Unexpected Man." And the hyperactive eloquence -- "I can understand you might envision the supplicant licking your boots," Sonia huffs, "but to include his wife in this tableau of prostration is a mistake" -- grows increasingly wearisome.
Matthew Warchus, who has directed all the London and New York productions of Reza's plays, elicits respectable performances, but they don't quite meld into a satisfactory whole. Turturro has the most lively role as Henry, the man with the most at stake. His slow-burning frustration over his son's recalcitrance is very funny, and Turturro's hair-raising bursts of self-pity or savage bitterness are entertaining on their own terms, even if they are sometimes overscaled. Certainly it's hard to imagine how his volatile Henry could share a life with the subdued Sonia of Hunt, whose uninflected voice is not ideal for the stage. The climactic speech in which Sonia describes Henry's emotional fluctuations doesn't have the impact it presumably is meant to.
Spiner is fine in the thin role of the arrogant Hubert, but it is Emond who comes closest to giving the evening the emotional dimensions necessary to engage us. The run in Inez's stocking turns out to be an evil portent: Inez spends the evening(s) slowly unraveling, and Emond manages to make her dissolution continually poignant. And she alone makes her character's reflections on man's place in the universe seem to come from an authentic place, as if abstraction offered a brief reprieve from Inez's life of petty marital turmoil.
"Above us … what is there?" she asks in the last scene, grasping to reaffirm man's place in a meaningful universe after an evening of emotional discombobulation. "You live up in the stars, Henry. Tell me there's not nothing." Henry's answer -- "It's all built on nothing" -- is meant to strike a bleak, resounding note, but in context it sounds less like a dark manifesto than a perceptive comment on the play, which employs a flashy theatrical device in the service of a substantive void.