Family Ties

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I picked up a copy of Yasmina Reza’s Life (x) 3 a couple of days after seeing the play at Circle in the Square and was flabbergasted to discover that the opening scene between John Turturro and Helen Hunt, through which I’d sat grim-faced and fish-eyed, is actually funny. Sonia and Henry are arguing about how to deal with their recalcitrant six-year-old.

Henry: He wants a biscuit.

Sonia: He’s just cleaned his teeth.

HENRY: He’s asking for a biscuit.

SONIA: He knows very well there’s no
biscuits in bed.

HENRY: You tell him.

SONIA: Why didn’t you?

HENRY: Because I didn’t know there were
no biscuits in bed.

Sonia goes out to deal with the child, and we hear him begin to wail offstage. As he is still crying when she returns, Henry suggests bringing him a slice of apple, but Sonia is adamant. More wailing. Henry goes offstage and comes back.

HENRY: He’s agreed to the slice of apple.
SONIA: He’s not having any apple, he’s not
having anything, you don’t eat in bed, the
subject is closed.

HENRY: You tell him.

SONIA: Stop it.

HENRY: I said yes to the apple, I thought
the apple was a possibility. If you’re saying no, go and tell him yourself.

SONIA: Take him a slice of apple
and tell him you’re doing it behind
my back. Tell him I said no and
you’re only doing it because you
said yes, but that I mustn’t find out
because I’m radically opposed to any
kind of food in bed.

Relax. I’m not going to make any burbling noises about how you don’t need to have small children to find this funny. (Wouldn’t know, haven’t got any.) I am going to say that it
doesn’t take Donald Sinden and Maggie Smith to make it play. It probably does take British actors, though, and they probably need to be performing Christopher Hampton’s translation (from the French) as written, not an Americanized version.

This is purely a function of style, idiom and cultural context. Take the matter of diction. Biscuit is a light-comedy word. It’s neutral. It allows us to get where the dialogue is going and focus on the politics of the situation. Cookie, the word that’s substituted in the production at Circle, isn’t light-comedy material. It’s a joke word. Turturro is cute saying it. Who wouldn’t be? We’re derailed by the cuteness; it doesn’t really matter what comes after.

Or take the subject of the conversation itself. Americans discussing questions of how to negotiate with their children isn’t satire, it’s sitcom. All Americans negotiate with their children, and all Americans argue about it. We take childrearing seriously and have done so for the past fifty years. Europeans don’t—that is, only a certain class of trendy European does, probably in emulation of Americans. Spoken in the accents of New York, the scene tells us nothing about Sonia and Henry. Spoken in British English, it would give us a hint about who they are.

But the main thing you’d need in order for the opening of Life (x) 3 to be funny would be not to have Ms. Hunt anywhere in the equation. A limited actress to begin with, Ms. Hunt has taken to allowing the persona that made her America’s sweetheart (unaccountably, I think) to obtrude on every role she performs. It’s hard to believe that her mannerisms—the squint she levels at fellow actors, the whiny, strained, prosaically uninflected voice—ever seemed refreshing or even benign. She wields them now like weapons, encased in an impenetrable air of moral righteousness. The actress playing the mother in the opening scene of Reza’s play must be able to forgo moral ascendancy. Within moments, she will be yelling for the child to "Shut the fuck up" and irrationally baiting him with visions of "chocolate fingers." But Ms. Hunt brings the same emotional freight and crusading spirit to Sonia’s views about childrearing that she brought to the role of the doting mother in As Good as It Gets. It’s the same performance, for crying out loud, and it’s tiresome beyond belief.

In order to find anything witty or interesting in Reza’s play, alas, you’d pretty much have to redirect it in your head. Life (x) 3 is a slight, unassuming comedy, part gentle farce, part moth-like speculation on human behavior that shows us the same disastrous dinner party three times in three different ways. Sonia and Henry and their guests, Hubert and Inez, are no more or less two-dimensional than the characters in a Noel Coward play. Like the foursome in Private Lives, like the theatrical family in Hay Fever and their pompous, conventional guests, Reza’s characters exist pretty much to be rude to each other. The fun lies in watching well-dressed, over-educated people misbehave. There really isn’t much more to it than that.

But light comedy such as this demands a light touch, and three-quarters of the cast of Life (x) 3 is simply not comfortable with the genre. This is delicate stuff. Even the justification for the life-in-triplicate gimmick is gossamer-thin. Henry and Hubert are both astrophysicists, a circumstance that allows for passing references to cosmology and metaphysics (the phrase "modification of a presumed reality" comes up). But there’s no attempt to delineate a process of behavioral causality. The characters of the characters simply change from scene to scene. Thus, one version of Henry is high-strung and self-dramatizing. Another is modest and self-assured. One version of Sonia is overtly hostile to Hubert, who is more successful than Henry and may be in a position to help him professionally. In another version, Sonia and Hubert are contemplating a weekday tryst.

One of the things that’s been said about the play is that the variations are in the wrong order, and certainly the conceit seems haphazard in this production. It’s only in reading Life (x) 3 that you realize that there may in fact be a progression. In each scene, the characters seem to become less simplistic, less oriented toward the exigencies of a specific genre. They lose their formulaic edge and take on, instead, a tinge of idiosyncrasy.

My guess is that each of the four actors in the play is effectively supposed to become three completely different people, and that our pleasure and fascination should derive from the artistry with which they do so. Reza is herself an actress (she played Inez in the original Paris production), and I suspect that Life (x) 3 is fundamentally a play about theater, just as Art was. People were wrong-headed in dismissing that first play because it seemed to raise long-settled controversies about painting. The purpose of the white-on-white canvas—the reason why it had to be that and not anything else—was so that we would spend the evening watching actors pretending to respond to something that looked to us like there was nothing there. This is what actors always do, after all. That closing speech in which images of whiteness vanish into nothingness—the clouds, the snow, the solitary skier who becomes "a man who moves across a space and disappears"—was a picture of the stage.

Unfortunately, subtext is not an option with three-fourths of the New York cast of Life (x) 3. (The exception is Ms. Emond, whom one could watch for hours.) As a result, the play simply becomes less interesting as the evening wears on. John Turturro is a god, but light social comedy isn’t his genre, and Brent Spiner has nowhere near the requisite edge of menace to bring off the role of Hubert. Matthew Warchus, who staged the production at London’s National Theater (where he had Mark Rylance, Harriet Walter and Imelda Staunton to work with) must simply have thrown up his hands.

The guy you want playing the unpleasant but overwritten Hubert in Reza’s play is probably the subtle, urbane and versatile Walter Bobbie, who is appearing just now in David Ives’ Polish Joke, to the great delight of Manhattan Theater Club audiences. Mr. Bobbie, I recall, did a wonderful turn in a production of Shaw’s Getting Married some years ago, then played Nicely-Nicely Johnson in the Jerry Zaks revival of Guys and Dolls, and went on to spend the next ten years as artistic director of the Encores! concert series at City Center—too long, I feel, because it seems to have kept him off the stage. Mr. Bobbie is rare among American stage actors in his ability to project intellectual feeling without playing it as an abstraction—he’s like Kevin Spacey in this regard—and he finds nuance in the most intriguing and unexpected places, wild comic cameos and archetypal characters, almost like a novelist more than an actor. He’s at his best in Ives’ extremely funny if frustrating play.

It concerns a young man of Polish descent (Malcolm Gets) named Jasiu (pronounced "Yashoo"), who goes through life pretending to be an Irishman—or who has gone through life pretending to be. It’s not really clear. The first 20 minutes or so consist of a lovely wry monologue in which Mr. Gets, memory-play-style, proposes a vision of ethnic doom—of two kinds, real and perceived. The speech gives way to a flashback in which we witness the conversation from which he apparently derived all philosophy, a backyard chat in which his beer-guzzling Uncle Roman (Richard Ziman) once laid out for his nine-year-old self the practical and existential pitfalls of being Polish. The beauty of the writing in this opening sequence—and it’s one of the funniest set-pieces being done on a New York stage—suggests that the rest of the play will show us the consequences of this discussion. In fact, though, Ives falls into the telling-not-showing mode, and from here on in, until a poignant final scene, the play consists of Mr. Gets narrating things we’d like to see performed, while a succession of surreal, Christopher Durang-like nightmare episodes illustrates the same joke over and over again. It’s not that the scenes aren’t funny, but the excellent ensemble cast—which includes Nancy Opel and Nancy Bell, in addition to Mr. Ziman and Mr. Bobbie—are only allowed to become embodiments of ideas we’ve already heard expressed.

The director, John Rando, has orchestrated the whole thing joyously before a wonderfully inventive Loy Arcenas set that symbolically captures the image of the world as the hero sees it. But it’s tough to stay funny at the pitch of frenetic wackiness that Ives has striven for, and the longeurs begin to outweigh the pleasure of the witty one-liners. The joke version of Daniel Deronda you thought you saw coming never materializes. Instead, there’s a tiresome thread about a tiresome girl whom Gets leaves in his search for an identity, and he ultimately discovers (imagine!) the nobility of being Polish. Mr. Gets is as endearing and piquant as ever, and Nancy Opel is, as usual, amazingly funny. And Mr. Ziman has one or two delightful moments toward the end of the play, when Jasiu comes to see Roman, now dying, and discovers that his uncle doesn’t even remember the conversation in which he imparted to Jasiu the precepts the boy went on to live by.

There’s a truth there, but Ives skirts around it, giving us instead an ersatz moral—that all people everywhere are really the same. It seems a missed opportunity. Surely the point here is something more complicated—almost ineffable—about the haphazard way in which our childhood selves receive and interpret information, giving them a construction or importance that the grownups perhaps never intended.

Life (x) 3 at Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway (50th St.), 212-239-6200.
Polish Joke at Manhattan Theater Club, 131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.) 212-581-1212.

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