Astrophysically Speaking, Three Nights for the Price of One!

There’s one terrific reason to see Yasmina Reza’s latest trifle, Life (x) 3 . In an otherwise dispiriting evening, Linda Emond gives the best performance of an alcoholic I’ve ever seen.

She’s the truest of actresses in everything she does. But what Ms. Emond is up to here reminds us, quite simply, that she’s the one . She was mesmerizing as the eccentric British lady during her tour de force in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul . Here she’s unshowily conjuring up miracles out of thin air.

It’s said that if a play offers the kindling, the actor will light the fire. But I’m not sure the perilously thin Life (x) 3 does even that for its quartet of leading actors. The marquee names, Helen Hunt and John Turturro, with Brent Spiner and Ms. Emond, have been given little to play with in the short, 90-minute evening that Ms. Reza has inflated with a pretentious touch of astrophysics to impress the punters.

Life (x) 3 is a repetitive playlet full of hot air about one night in the life of two bickering bourgeois couples in Paris who act out three different versions of the same evening for us. The Rashomon -like form isn’t new to the theater; Alan Ayckbourne’s been doing it for years; and J.B. Priestley did it in his “Time Plays” before him. But if even one version of Ms. Reza’s disastrous dinner party had risen above sitcom mediocrity, the evening would amount to little more than the small compensation of a wobbly soufflé deflating before disappointed eyes.

And yet Ms. Emond’s portrait of the beaten-down wife, Inez, is so convincing and right that it amounts to a model of great acting. She and Mr. Spiner’s self-important prick of a husband, Hubert, are trapped, we learn, in a 20-year nightmare marriage. And how we gather this isn’t just through Hubert’s reflexive little snickers and humiliating put-downs, or the fragility of Inez’s social world, in which an accidental run in her hose can have the impact of a train wreck. It’s that Ms. Emond’s perfectly shaded performance conveys her inner desperation by stealth.

Hers is the only performance that mutates and grows throughout the evening-and sometimes, most miraculously of all, by appearing to do nothing. By sitting there! Or so it seems. The best actors know how to listen, and Ms. Emond listens well to the nonsense going on around her. She doesn’t play at being drunk, least of all does she slur her words. In fact, her chronically depressed, frightened alcoholic is scarcely seen drinking. One glass of Sancerre will do it, conveying the wounded essence of her. We know this disappointed woman, and we fear for her. We know she’s not going to make it in life. Not that it prevents Ms. Emond from quietly getting the biggest laughs of the evening. “Yes, let’s go, sweetheart,” she says dryly in mid-argument to her bullying husband. “You can finish me off in the Audi.” But only the supreme Ms. Emond could wring the tragic from the dramatist’s token notion of cosmic mystery.

Ms. Reza’s best play, Art -a 90-minute light comedy that she had the chutzpah to describe as a tragedy-was about the explosive issues raised among three middle-class friends when one of them buys an abstract painting. But the artistic debates themselves were about 30 years out of date, as if the dramatist had only just discovered modern art. Her more recent The Unexpected Man was essentially a paper-thin 80-minute trifle with literary pretentions that was a vehicle for two star actors who could have us rapt by reading a telephone directory (Alan Bates and Eileen Atkins). Now comes the 90-minute Life (x) 3 with its intimations of astrophysics.

“When we talk about the String Theory, the Theory of Everything, what do we mean?” Hubert, the goading astrophysicist, says at the start of Scene 3. “We mean a unifying theory of all the fundamental forces. However, even if you could conceive a theory which covered all the basic interactions, for one thing your theory would be far from comprehensive. As Poincaré said, you can examine each cell of an elephant, but that won’t help you grasp its zoological reality, and you still wouldn’t have eliminated the paradox of the cosmos! How can we grasp the world as it is ?”

How, indeed. Ms. Reza’s answer is to have a faux intellectual debate in a conventional boulevard comedy. Do not concern yourself with smokescreen references to the mysterious astrophysical flatness of halos. They’re the equivalent of name-dropping in the void. The bilious inconsequentiality of the evening isn’t because of the vastness of the cosmos. It’s small because it’s small.

The play begins at the home of Sonia (Helen Hunt) and her loser husband, Henry (John Turturro), who are arguing about their 6-year-old child, who’s crying in bed off-stage. The question is, will the obnoxious little brat get another hug and a chocolate from his despairing parents? Or, within three minutes, the theme of the play: Who will be humiliated? Who will be manipulated? Clue: The weak-willed Henry gives in to his whining child just as he bows obsequiously on his knees before his boss, the creep Hubert. Henry hasn’t published anything in three years, and badly needs the support of Hubert to become something called research director. A paper he’s about to submit on the flatness of galaxy halos has been pre-empted by a Mexican team. But we don’t know that at the time.

When the battling Hubert and Inez turn up for dinner with Henry and Sonia on the wrong night in a stock sitcom device, everything goes predictably wrong. Question: Why don’t they all just call it a night and go out to dinner?

Answer: If a halo isn’t round any more, it’s a modification of presumed reality. Anyway, Henry is shattered by news of the Mexican flat-halo team, and he’ll have to check urgently on Astro PH whether a similar piece has been submitted to the AP-J. Meanwhile, the child keeps screaming for attention, Sonia clearly isn’t happily married to spineless Henry, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hubert’s got a shot with Sonia. The evening doesn’t end well.

And that, more or less, is now repeated twice more with variations of little or no consequence in what Ms. Reza calls “the bell-tower of eternity.” It’s as if the dramatist has given us three drafts of the same unsatisfactory half-hour play. Helen Hunt is too one-note, I’m afraid, though it’s an appealing note. But there’s no sexual electricity between her somewhat cold Sonia and Brent Spiner’s Hubert hiding behind those cruel glasses of his. The accomplished John Turturro’s Henry is surprisingly hysterical throughout much of the evening. Directed by Matthew Warchus, elegantly designed by Mark Thompson, and translated by a superior dramatist, Christopher Hampton, Ms. Reza’s inflated self-importance has become tiresome.