We all reflect upon those obvious moments that completely changed the course of our lives. What if you never were introduced to your spouse? What if you had swerved to avoid colliding with that minivan? But consider something seemingly less significant. What if you chose Fruit Loops instead of Cheerios Monday morning? Would something so mundane actually alter the universe in ways that cannot be predicted?
This is the general notion that LIFE X 3, now playing at Barley Sheaf in Lionville, tackles. Cosmology researcher Henry (Cameron Munson) and his wife Sonia (Christine Robinson) are attempting to enjoy a peaceful evening at home, interspersed with dealing with the incessant cries of their offstage son. Suddenly, Henry’s colleague and lab technician Hubert (Christopher Exley), along with his wife Inez (Sherry Snyder), show up at their front door. It turns out Henry and Sonia previously had invited the couple over for dinner but thought their plans were for the following night. As a result, Henry and Sonia are underdressed, unprepared and without food. It’s a familiar comic contrivance, but it works.
Henry had an ulterior motive in extending the invitation. One letter of recommendation from Hubert could thrust Henry to the top of his field. All that’s needed is a little buttering up. Unfortunately, the mix-up with the days proves to be just the first of many problems. Despite their best efforts (to humorous effect), the couples cannot get along, and the evening quickly spirals into disaster. End of Act I.
But let’s keep this same basic scene and tweak it, just a bit (Fruit Loops instead of Cheerios). Would the failed outcome be identical? Repeat twice and you have Act II. I won’t spoil the answer.
It’s not specifically mentioned in the play, but director Glen Eric Reed references “chaos theory” in his director’s note, which came to my mind as well. The theory perhaps was best illustrated by Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: “A butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing, and the weather in New York is rain instead of sunshine.” Chaos theory speaks to the inherent unpredictability of complex systems, such as weather, and the concept clearly is at work in this show with respect to human behavior.
LIFE X 3 is penned by French playwright Yasmina Reza, probably best known for the atypical comedy, ART. Both plays succeed in bringing abstract themes down to the day-to-day, interpersonal level. In ART, it’s the aesthetic. Here, it’s theoretical physics. What I admired most about LIFE X 3 is that, like ART, it can be appreciated on different planes. You don’t need to know a sniff about science to be entertained here, as Reza’s witty dialogue punctuates each profound point with a dash of relatable humor.
Reed and his competent cast do a great job with the material, providing continuous laughs while keeping a smooth and solid pace, a testament of a well-rehearsed show. The sparse production elements are solid. This is a play about relationships, not elaborate sets and intricate lighting.
Although I was completely engaged throughout, there is a notable difference between this play and ART. In ART, the characters actively debate the question of what constitutes art, which helps the audience follow along. In LIFE X 3, however, the characters are oblivious to the other “time-lines”, or iterations, of the scene. The audience must constantly play detective, putting the pieces together through various subtleties in the dialogue. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but since the audience isn’t “in” on the unique structure of the show until Act II, important moments early on may be missed.
Also slightly frustrating is that the cause-and-effect distinctions between the iterations are unclear. In the Jeff Goldblum example of chaos theory, there is a distinct cause (Chinese butterfly) and effect (downpour in Manhattan). LIFE X 3 provides no such specificity. The separate iterations are not that dissimilar, and we aren’t privy as to what caused the different yet subtle effects we see. In essence, the butterfly is missing.
I’ll again stress that, due to the wonderfully witty dialogue portrayed through strong performances, this production can be enjoyed without considering the concepts discussed above. If nothing else has convinced you of this play’s merit, let it be known that Reza’s script manages to juxtapose dark matter halos and white cheddar cheez-its. I say, give her the Pulitzer.
LIFE X 3
by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Glen Eric Reed
April 29 – May 14, 2011
Barley Sheaf Players
810 N Whitford Rd