Yasmina Reza's 'Life' comes to Broadway

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  April 30, 2003 at 12:42 PM
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NEW YORK, April 30 (UPI) -- It shouldn't take much stamina to get through a 90-minute play, but French playwright Yasmina Reza's "Life (x) 3" begins to suck an audience's energy by the time it reaches its final scene, a repetition of the previous two scenes except for variations in the power game that passes for a plot.

This flimsy follow-up to Reza's international theatrical hit, "Art," is written in the "Rashomon" style, looking at a single incident from three different points of view. The incident, in the case of "Life (x) 3" which is having its U.S. premiere at the Circle in the Square Theater, is an evening with two couples, one visiting the other, in an apartment in Paris.

The host couple are not expecting their guests until the next night, so they are forced to act as hospitably as possible under the circumstances, making do with packaged snacks rather than proper French hors d'ouevres. Luckily, they have plenty of Sancerre wine on hand to dampen feelings of mutual embarrassment.

The residents of the apartment are an American couple stationed in Paris. The husband, Henry (John Turturro), is a research astrophysicist waiting for publication of an important theory he has concocted about the flatness of galaxy halos in order to advance himself in his job as a think-tank theoretician. Sonia (Helen Hunt) is his supportive attorney wife although given to bickering over how to discipline their 6-year-old (offstage) son.

The guests are Hubert (Brent Spiner), a scientist who is in a position to speed Henry's climb up the professional ladder to a research director's job, and his alcoholic wife, Inez (Linda Edmond). Hubert and Inez both consider Henry as something of a boorish, obsequious loser and his wife as lacking in social sophistication -- at least that is their attitude in the first act when they seem bent on deliberately humiliating Henry and Sonia.

Who's humiliating whom in the course of following barely disguised power agendas is played out differently in each of the play's three scenes. Much of the action devolves on Henry's discovery that a team of Mexican scientists have made a pre-emptive report on halo flatness, rendering his own findings less than original.

It's a game that is fun in the first two scenes but begins to wear out its welcome as a time-killing amusement in the third, much like a game of "Monopoly" that goes on too long. The final curtain seems almost a blessing. There has been a surfeit of bickering and predictable sitcom situations such as Hubert attempting to seduce Sonia with the implicit promise of helping her husband achieve his aspirations.

That is not to say the evening is a total loss. Yasmina is a clever playwright, as proved by her "Art," which won the 1998 Tony Award for best play, and "The Unexpected Man," and there is a lot of funny repartee to relish, especially in the opening scene involving bribing a screaming child to get him to go to sleep.

Even more importantly, there are four fine characterizations given by resourceful actors with proven track records in the theater.

Linda Edmonds, who was sensational in the first act monologue in Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul," gives a many-layered performance in the role of the unhappily married Inez, object of mean husbandly putdowns that would drive any wife to drink. Spiner is perfectly cast as the treacherous, self-important Hubert who is not above lecturing his captive audience on his views of the String Theory, a unifying force theory that is essentially incomprehensible.

Hunt, who won as Oscar for her role in "As Good As It Gets" and multiple Emmys for TV's "Mad About You," does what she can, and that is considerable, with Sonia, the one underwritten role in the play. Yazmina sees Sonia as a somewhat detached, unemotional woman, less interesting to watch than the other characters and at times overshadowed by Turturro's hysterically intense Henry.

Turturro's performance only adds to the luster of his phenomenal career as a stage and screen actor and film writer and director. There is a wild look in his eye and a determined cast to his slack-set jaw that only adds to his amazing characterization from within of a man who is loosing his grip on the last straw that might give his life some possibility of meaning.

It is a memorable acting achievement and probably the only reason "Life (x) 3" will be remembered by Broadway audiences.

Christopher Hampton has translated the play adroitly from the original French ("Trois Versions de la Vie") into colloquial English, and Matthew Warchus has given the action an easy, contemporary spin with the aid of Mark Thompson's revolving set, which truly gives the audience in the surround-seating theater a different viewpoint for each scene.

Sensitive lighting by Hugh Vanstone and incidental music by Gary Yershon add to the plays exemplary production values.

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