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Helen Hunt and John Turturro in Yasmina Reza's Life (x) 3Come Again?
By Jonathan Kalb

Life (x) 3
By Yasmina Reza
Circle in the Square
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Box Office: (212) 239-6200


Yasmina Reza's Life (x) 3 is a play that keeps starting over. It presents three different versions of the same disastrous evening in a Paris apartment, when an astrophysicist named Henry (John Turturro) and his lawyer wife Sonia (Helen Hunt) are trying to get their six-year-old settled for the night and dinner guests arrive who were expected for the following evening. A few other playwrights have worked this vein before, by which I mean the device of repeating the same scene in different variations, not the unbelievably shopworn circumstance of a dinner party that never gets going. J.B. Priestley, Alan Ayckbourn, Michael Frayn, and Caryl Churchill have all experimented, variously, in déjà vu by design, and all have wedded the device to interesting themes and ideas. Reza, by contrast, leaves one seriously suspecting that she cobbled together the false starts of a draft she couldn't finish and served them up as a half-baked meditation on relativity. But perhaps it's unfair to start this way. Let me take that again.

Yasmina Reza's Life (x) 3 is a play that keeps starting over. In the smoothly bland production that recently opened at Circle in the Square, directed by Matthew Warchus (who also directed the critically acclaimed London production of 2000), it is spiced up between scenes with a really cool blue-laser-cube effect that flashes to loud music while the round rug-and-couch set revolves to show different perspectives (design by Mark Thompson). The play does win early points for realism as Turturro and Hunt find numerous subtle shadings in a nasty spat over parental values provoked by their exasperating six-year-old. That plausibility doesn't last long, though, as all the rest of the squabbling and backbiting that follow in the first scene are worthy of the laser cube and strongly reminiscent of the utterly incredible screaming fits between straight, self-contained guy-guy friends in Reza's slick 1998 Broadway hit Art.

The matchup with the visiting couple is pure sitcom. Hubert (Brent Spiner), a smug senior scientist whose recommendation Henry needs for promotion, badgers his wife Inez (Linda Emond) with tritely boorish insults, making it laughable that a self-possessed beauty like Sonia would ever fall for him. Meanwhile, Hubert harbors casual malice toward Henry. Knowing that the latter hasn't published in three years, Hubert drops the bombshell that the paper he's staked his future on has probably been scooped by Mexican scientists. The only apparent motive for this malice is the provocation of snickers among anti-intellectual spectators thrilled by the circumstance's exaggerated publish-or-perish terror. Other would-be metaphysical mysteries include: why do the guests decide to stay and munch Cheeze-Its and chocolate fingers rather than reschedule the dinner? And why don't their hosts, both worldly professionals, think of ordering take-out? But perhaps I've rushed to judgement. Let me try again.

Because Yasmina Reza's Life (x) 3 is a play that keeps starting over, with mostly unremarkable dialogue by indifferently conceived characters who occasionally wax astrophysical, the only source of clues to its putative larger game is in the differences between the scenes. The second time through, the scenario is just as implausible, with Henry getting sloppily drunk and aggressive, and Hubert defending himself well enough until much maligned Inez points up his disingenuousness and leaves the party in hysterical tears. The third variation takes a wholly new contemplative tone, beginning with a sweeping philosophical monologue by Hubert regarding the humane grandeur of cosmological study and integrated scientific knowledge and continuing with a manic-depressive collapse into melancholy on Henry's part. Hubert drops his news about the Mexicans, but Henry takes it with equanimity and we learn later that it's not career-shattering after all. In a casual inspection of the nature of manic depression, we find out that neither Hubert's two-facedness nor Sonia's infidelity are really the cause of Henry's depression.

The implication (supporting my earlier surmise) is that Reza had no deeper subject to begin with but eventually found one that felt hip and philosophical enough to suffice as content for those who don't look or listen too hard: randomness. Often, things go wrong without anyone being able to say exactly why. Eureka! Life (at least when replicated three times) isn't a melodrama or a sitcom. As Henry says about his research on "the shape of dark-matter halos," sometimes an object really is as flat as it looks, even when scores of intelligent people insist that must be three-dimensional.


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