An intriguing conceit counts for surprisingly little in “Life x 3,” the Yasmina Reza play about a dinner party viewed thrice over to diminishing effect. In “Art” and “The Unexpected Man,” the same playwright allowed a sliver of experience — a dispute over a painting, the meeting of two people on a train — to widen out into moving and witty meditations on the world at large as refracted through one tiny prism. Perhaps other productions of the new play have revealed more within it, since the cast size (four) and running time (90 minutes, no intermission: the Reza norm) can’t by themselves account for the alacrity with which the show is spreading across Europe, with nearly simultaneous stagings in Vienna, Paris and Athens. (The current, and relatively brief, Royal National Theatre stand marks the play’s English-language preem prior to a commercial transfer next month to the Old Vic.) But Matthew Warchus’ decidedly cool take on the play, notwithstanding an A-list cast dominated by a memorably quivering Mark Rylance, doesn’t fend off one’s feeling that “Life x 3” is alarmingly inconsequential, no matter how you trisect it.
One can imagine the fun that Alan Ayckbourn, say, would have with much the same structure — and has had, in fact, in his “Intimate Exchanges.” But one is distanced from proceedings of Reza’s play before they even begin. Mark Thompson’s curious set is framed by a cube whose electric-blue neon looks down on a clinical sitting room evoking a talkshow waiting to happen. Add Hugh Vanstone’s atypically gaudy lighting and the climate shifts to a no less generic gameshow, complete with a jazz-flecked score from Gary Yershon that was perfectly suited to the modernist aesthetic of “Art” (“Life x 3” has the same creative team as Reza’s two international successes) but here compounds the feeling that a lot of sensory activity is taking place in a void.
As it happens, voids of sorts get a workout in the play, since its men are rival astrophysicists prone to talk about the flatness of galaxy halos, among other matters. Not only that, both Henry (Rylance) and senior colleague Hubert (Oliver Cotton) would appear to be in marriages marked by varying degrees of emptiness, except that Reza’s ordering of events continually throws open to doubt just what, or whom, to believe.
When first glimpsed, Henry is a cowed and abject wreck who has to balance his academic failures (he hasn’t published in three years) with the parental demands imposed by an offstage 6-year-old son, Anton, who won’t stop bawling.
Imagine, then, the surprise of Henry and wife Sonia (Harriet Walter, at her most quicksilver) when Hubert and wife Ines (Imelda Staunton, tottering comically about the stage in dangerously high heels) arrive a day early for dinner. What to do? Three possibilities emerge over the course of a play that seems to want to set the tiniest of details against the backdrop of the cosmos that is, of course, the two men’s life’s work.
What’s more, as “Life x 3” makes plain, perhaps our definitions are simply wrong. In the quotidian bourgeois world demarcated by the couples in the play, the smallest of choices can have an effect equal to science’s most bewilderingly large and impersonal workings. To that extent, the macro and the micro are one, with humankind ensnared somewhere in between, in this play drinking Sancerre, flirting (or not, as the case may be), and fretting over the fate of a box of “chocolate fingers.”
The problem, at least in this incarnation, as translated (per usual) by Reza’s London collaborator Christopher Hampton, is that “Life x 3” often seems as “dry and brittle” as one of the critiques the mean-spirited and patronizing Hubert is forever doling out, with the play going in circles without coming in to land.
By contrast, the blank canvas in “Art” provided the perfect metaphor for a three-way friendship that needed to be drawn up, as it were, from scratch, while the unspoken thoughts that (mostly) make up “The Unexpected Man” comprise a far more sophisticated metaphysical vaudeville than the more strained, if audience-friendly, Beckett-tinged banter on view here. (The play’s most portentous musings all fall to Ines, who is the one to ponder most directly the individual’s relationships to the stars.)
To be sure, there’s some fascination to be had from noting the scene-to-scene variations: a look of panic (from Henry) in one replaced by a smile in another, a sleek outfit (for Sonia) in one scenario given over to a dressing gown in the next. And Reza, a noted actress (she plays Ines in the Paris production), displays her own indebtedness to Chekhov via depictions of amorous and professional jealousy that position Henry, in particular, as a would-be Vanya, who admits in the second of the script’s three variations that he is, indeed, “doomed.”
And if the trappings of the evening are forever taking us out of “Life x 3,” the wonderful Rylance can’t help but draw a viewer back in through sheer thespian sleight-of-hand. Watch him move from a sense of depletion (Henry, we learn, risks having years of research come to nothing) to a giddiness bordering on the manic, a decent soul suspended to his bespectacled detriment between euphoria and melancholia. “Life x 3” may leave you wondering when the play itself is set to begin, but at least it boasts an actor so gifted that he can’t help but give the audience a start.