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lets it be known that the groundbreaking article that Henry hoped would jumpstart his stalled career has suddenly been superseded.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.