Life (x) 3 by Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Design by Mark Thompson. Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone. Music Composed by Gary Yershon. Sound Design by Christopher T. Cronin. Cast: Helen Hunt, John Turturro, Linda Emond, Brent Spiner. The producers wish to express their appreciation to Theatre Development Fund for its support of this production.
Life is unpredictable, frequently with few clear guidelines. A different action, a changed word, or even a slightly modified attitude can create a domino effect with unforeseen results, and as important as making such decisions is looking back on the choices you've made and questioning their consequences. Much of Yasmina Reza's blistering new comedy, Life (x) 3 (translated by Christopher Hampton), at the Circle in the Square, is about examining just that, with all the uncertain and ephemeral implications.
Reza has a unique talent - demonstrated as fitfully here as in her previous success, Art - of breaking down a single emotion or simplistic premise and viewing it from all angles. As the characters in Art spent a great deal of time concerned with a painting of questionable artistic and aesthetic value, the characters in Life (x) 3 are engaged in an even more titanic struggle, for their well being and, perhaps, their very lives.
In Life (x) 3, Reza deals with those small moments in big ways, as if an expert dealer handling a deck of cards. She takes actions, feelings, and words, and stacks, deals, rearranges, and shuffles them time and time again, allowing a multitude of possibilities for the play's four characters. The play's title refers to the show's choosing three of the biggest and presenting them in succession - the names and places are the same, but little else is.
The primary situation the characters must face is simple. Henry and Sonia (John Turturro and Helen Hunt), charged with hosting a dinner party for one of Henry's colleagues and his wife (Brent Spiner and Linda Emond), are in the midst of ordinary evening activities (reviewing an important file for work, dealing with their demanding son) when their door is buzzed: Their guests have arrived a full day earlier than planned. Should Sonia greet the guests, Hubert and Inez, in her robe? Should Henry do all he can to keep their son quiet, or appease him to make sure things go off without a hitch? And when the guests do appear, and professional and personal conflicts arise, should they be confronted head-on, more covertly, or just ignored all together?
Reza is interested in answering all of these questions and more within the arc of her greater dramatic construct. One of the story's three incarnations focuses primarily on how people believe when secrets and confidences are baldly exposed, another suggests the intricate interaction of words and the truly fragile human spirit. As the alcohol at this party flows freely (Sonia and Henry had very little food but plenty of wine), its effects change as the reasons surrounding its consumption change. That Reza is able to turn even a box of chocolate cookies into a significant sticking point for the characters should illustrate the layers of detail she's applied here.
That detail is sumptuously realized in the deceptively simple production. Though it was directed by Matthew Warchus, the contributions of set designer Mark Thompson (who also did the show's costumes) are vital - Henry and Sonia's living room is a tribute to circles, with an enormous round coffee table preventing easy access to every area of the room, and the room's sparse furniture is arranged around the table like the lookout towers of a castle.
Or perhaps more appropriately battle trenches; Warchus uses every means at his disposal to provide a striking sense of textual clarity to all his stage pictures. The characters group together physically as they form emotional, spiritual, or verbal alliances (not always of the positive kind) and separate when those bonds are broken. And when, as frequently is the case, the characters are completely at odds, they remain poised upon the furniture as far away from each other physically as they are socially. There's a haunting, cinematic nature to Warchus's direction, which seems perfectly wedded to Reza's text in terms of sheer storytelling ability. Hugh Vanstone's lighting is fine throughout, but comes alive during the scenic transitions to maintain the show's theatrical flair when no dialogue is being spoken.
The show is also impeccably cast: Hunt is ideal as the brutally reactionary Sonia whose defenses are frequently beyond her control; Turturro is raw emotion, let out in tiny, barely constrained bursts; and Spiner is the image of professional control, even in the face of fierce opposition. Emond is the evening's most consistently funny performer, alluring as almost a beacon of reality in the play's crazy world, yet making Inez unavoidably brittle and human, as likely to fall apart as be able to hold herself together with alcohol. She does masterful work that deserves to be remembered come award time.
Life (x) 3 benefits perhaps more than it should from its top-flight performers and excellent director, who all are capable of smoothing over the show's occasional attempts to do too much. Though the constant reconfiguring of the situations and performers never becomes tiring, in lesser hands, the script's dense and unrelenting nature might prove unbearable. As it is here, paced within an inch of its life, and with respites seldom occurring except during scene changes, Life (x) 3 is a substantial investment that should not be undertaken lightly.
But with riskier investments come greater rewards, and Life (x) 3 is no exception. One of the most compelling and thought-provoking productions of the last few seasons, it's hardly the type of play that you can leave behind you in the theater; it almost demands repeated viewings to yield up the balance of its charms and meaning. It remains, however, highly captivating and entertaining even on one viewing, less a slice (or three) of life than a dissection of it, yet one that reveals the blood - and spirit - pulsing within.