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Life x 3

A taut and funny revival of a gem of a play by Yasmina Reza.

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Leah Curney, James Patrick Nelson, Claire Curtis-Ward and Dominic Comperatore in a scene from Yasmina Reza’s “Life X 3” (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Yasmina Reza, the French playwright, has the uncanny ability to spin polite social situations into knock-down-drag-out battles in which seemingly civilized, upper middle-class folk reveal their Neanderthal roots.  Starting with Art (1998) in which a proud purchaser of an all-white canvas suffers the slings and arrows of his friends, on to Life X 3 and finally God of Carnage (2009) where two couples from distinctly different social classes come to fisticuffs to settle a dispute between their sons, Reza has proved herself an astute, if detached observer of a tiny slice of humanity.

In Life X 3, currently revived at Urban Stages, Jerry Heymann’s production pulls no punches in its caustic examination of two couples who are bound to each other socially and financially.

Life X 3 was first seen in 2003 at the Circle in the Square.  This revival is tauter and funnier.  Perhaps this smaller venue refracts the play in a different way, but these four actors are more convincingly real, not to mention greater pains in the butt.  As the title implies, they get three chances to reveal—and revel in—their egos and idiosyncrasies, each succeeding part bringing out both nuances and bombshells.

Astronomer/author Henri (James Patrick Nelson), slightly balding and lacking in confidence and his wife Sonia (Claire Curtis-Ward), pretty and plain-spoken, argue about their different approaches to child rearing.  She is strict about biscuits, or any food, in bed after tooth brushing and equally strict about cuddling.  He is more permissive, but equally pissed off about six-year-old Arnaud’s manipulative behavior.

This scene of quiet domestic desperation is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of influential astrophysicist Hubert (Dominic Comperatore), dashing and impeccably dressed, and his wife Ines (Leah Curney), quietly elegant—except for a run in her stocking—who appear to have arrived a day early for a dinner date.

James Patrick Nelson and Claire Curtis-Ward in a scene from Yasmina Reza’s “Life X 3” (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

Hubert and Ines, already looking down their noses at Henri and Sonia for living in an outré neighborhood, feel superior in many other ways, ways that Henri and Sonia must ignore since Hubert has the power to affect Henri’s future as an astronomy writer.  Of course, the first thing Hubert does is pull the rug out from under Henri, revealing that another author has beaten him to the punch, writing about his subject matter, pancake flat galaxies.

This intellectual ego-busting is fascinatingly rendered in Reza’s pretentious pinpoint dialogue.  Adding insult to injury is a “dinner” of chocolate cookies and potato chip snacks plus free-flowing Sancerre which helps to loosen tongues that need no loosening.

In part two/the second variation, little Arnaud is behaving like the spoiled brat he is.  Henri and Sonia battle over what to do about it.  Nothing new there, until Henri quietly asks Sonia if she finds Hubert attractive, adding a piercing hint of jealousy to the emotional mix.

Again Hubert and Ines arrive on the wrong day, Ines again pouting about the run in her stocking (which fortunately somehow disappears in the third part).

This time, Hubert and Sonia find themselves alone when Henri and Ines go off to sooth the youngster in the other room. It is clear they are having an affair, despite the fact that Sonia finds him pompous and self-involved.

The language becomes stronger, insults evolving into shouts and screams and slamming doors.

Leah Curney and James Patrick Nelson in a scene from Yasmina Reza’s “Life X 3” (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

The third variation begins on a cool, scientific note with Henri and Hubert discussing the idea of a “unified theory” of everything.  When Ines and Henri go off to bill and coo over Arnaud, now dubbed a genius, Hubert grabs Sonia, expressing his desire for her.  A convenient telephone call gives Henri confidence about his soon to be published tome and, again, emotions are squirreled away.  Much is up in the air as the couples part.

Reza’s particular talent is writing insults that only register later, illuminated by wit and a deep understanding of her characters’ situation. Cunning asides slash egos painlessly, landing their stings later.  Ordinary domestic circumstances are held up to the light of her gimlet imagination.   Christopher Hampton’s smooth translation places Life X 3 firmly in modern England.

The impeccable set, designed by Brian Dudkiewicz is both elegant and somehow otherworldly with a wall of twinkling stars shining implacably on the weak humans.

Genevieve V. Beller’s costumes capture the characters’ tastes and class with subtlety and humor.

Paul Hudson’s lighting design creates just the right ambiance.

Finally, Heymann’s direction keeps the words and revelations flowing allowing this cast of fine actors to shine individually and as an ensemble.

This production of Life X 3 is presented by the New Light Theater Project.

Life X 3 (through December 8, 2018)

New Light Theater Project

Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.newlighttheaterproject.com

Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (292 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

1 Comment on Life x 3

  1. Set, lighting, costume – all get deserved accolades – but not a word about the sound design? The atmosphere of this production (which is arguably what sets it above the previous staging of the play) is also dependent on its wryly intelligent sound composition with original music by J. Bentley. The compositions are based on the mathematical value of e – an inside joke that translates beautifully to the mood and theme of the play. Good reviews are nice, but if you are going to call out technical elements that support the show, you really shouldn’t leave off good sound design. While the best sound design goes almost unnoticed by the general audience (because it is supposed to be unobtrusive and meld seamlessly with the action onstage), a reviewer who calls out excellence in the tech aspects of a show should know enough about theatre to recognise that as well.

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