Tony Award-winning French playwright Yasmina Reza is a master of the “Grand Chaos Theory,” which professes that the chance vagaries of social intercourse have profound impacts on our actions and behavior, eventually determining the major shifts our lives can take. Her 1998 Tony Award winner “Art” displayed Reza’s impressive ability to project the subtle nuances in the conversational dynamic among three longtime friends that profoundly alter their vision of one another. She impresses less with “Life x 3,” a tedious exploration of a dinner party gone wrong that is further sabotaged by a woefully uneven four-person ensemble under the turgid, unfocused staging of Richard Alan Woody.
With a Reza legiter, what is not obvious on the page needs to be amplified on the stage. This scripter requires the actors to burrow beneath the surface of often mundane-sounding dialogue to find and set off the emotional “flares” that will take the characters into heretofore unexplored aspects of their relationships — and their own psyches.
Unfortunately, helmer Woody offers no guidance to his ensemble, who have trouble making conversational sense of the dialogue, let alone explore its nuances. In all fairness, Reza’s haphazard manipulation of her characters from scene to scene doesn’t make the actors’ tasks any easier.
Scripted in 2000, “Life x 3” (translated from the French by Christopher Hampton) presents three versions of two couples (and an offstage 6-year-old) trying to make a success of an evening even though they neither like nor respect one another.
Set in a contemporary Paris apartment, the action begins with former lawyer Sonia (Amanda Melby) and astrophysicist Henri (Bowd Beal), a married couple with a small child, attempting to have a relaxing evening while emotionally dueling over the correct method of getting their recalcitrant son (voiced offstage by Renie Rivas) to quit whining and get to sleep. This early interplay between Melby’s Sonia and Beal’s Henri shows promise as they quite believably manipulate their bratty son’s actions into a parental power struggle.
This intriguing conjugal interplay is obliterated when Henri’s boss, Hubert (Bill Hutton), and Hubert’s wife, Inez (Anastasia Zavaro), dinner guests whom they had expected the following evening, arrive on the wrong night. Neither Zavaro nor Hutton are at all comfortable within their personas, creating an aura of tension that has nothing to do with the script. With no evidence of directorial shaping or pacing, the four plow through the dialogue with little sense of accomplishing Reza’s agenda. This further undercuts a difficult thematic evolution that needs all the help it can get.
There are some constants in this menage a quatre: Henri is dependent on Hubert’s approval for professional advancement; Sonia is mortified to be in her dressing robe; Inez is in a foul mood about a run in her stocking; and Hubert is a self-important ass.
Reza then develops three successive interpretations of the same events. In all three scenarios, the conversational linchpin is established when Hubert reveals that Henri’s three-year research project on the flatness of galaxy halos, which is about to be published, may be undercut by the just-published work of another physicist. The central events and personalities remain the same each time, but details and whole fields of characterization change.
Though the three scenes give ample opportunity for theatrically compelling verbal warfare, the lack of facile ensemble rapport renders the playlets lifeless. Hutton (Tony-nominated for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) is particularly ill-suited for the role of a sexist pig who thinks nothing of hitting on Sonia when given a 15-second window of opportunity. This further underscores Woody’s inability to elevate Reza’s text beyond the quite evident statement that things can go differently almost at random.
Reza draws a comparison between the halo of dark matter that surrounds an evening’s conversational banter and the haloes that surround galaxies in Henry’s field of research. The symbolism is impressive but grows tiresome when it is recapitulated times three.