Helen Hunt and John Turturro in Life x 3(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Helen Hunt and John Turturro in Life x 3
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Theater depends on illusion, and Yasmina Reza is one of today's foremost illusionists; that is to say, she writes plays that give the illusion of being about something.

In her most successful piece, Art, she expounds on male friendship but actually has very little enlightenment to offer on the subject. She is, however, extremely funny as she guides audiences on the journey to nowhere. The starting-off point of that work is an all-white painting that one of the three characters has purchased for something like $40,000. At fade-out, the blank canvas that has been the focus of much contentious discussion seems to be a metaphor for the play's content. In her second hit, The Unexpected Man, Reza introduces a bitter novelist and a woman who is reading one of his books. The pair are traveling on a train and, though exchanging only a few words with each other as they near their destination, they have many lengthy thoughts to address to the audience. They wax articulate for just over an hour, but little is illuminated.

Now, Reza's Life x 3 arrives in New York a few years after being seen in Europe. Again, the slick dramatist keeps the laughs and tiny apercus coming so thick and fast that it takes a while to notice that she doesn't have any particular point to make -- no point, that is, beyond the very obvious. Nor does Christopher Hampton, who has translated all three Reza plays, sneak in any additional commentary as well he might be able to do, since he's so adept at the pithy witticism in his own works.

Life x 3, directed crisply by Matthew Warchus (who has directed all the Reza translations), is a slice-of-life affair. Actually, as the title suggests, it's more like three views of the same slice-of-life. The events covered in it are seen three times over, each instant replay viewed from a slightly different angle. To underline this aspect of the 90-minute script, set designer Mark Thompson's contemporary living-room -- featuring a crescent divan, a tufted, leather and chrome chaise, and a number of children's toys -- shifts position.

The topic that Reza raises and pretends to address in some depth is marriage. The two couples she introduces as representatives of the beset institution are both having a tough go. In the midst of an evening at home, former lawyer Sonia (Helen Hunt) and astrophysicist Henry (John Turturro) can't get their obstreperous six-year-old off to sleep. The argument they have about the best approach to quieting the whiny tyke, whose annoying presence is sound designer Christopher T. Cronin's achievement, reaches a nasty peak just as Hubert (Brent Spiner) and Inez (Linda Emond) show up for a dinner that Sonia and Henry have completely forgotten was on the agenda.

When the four unfed diners settle in as much as they can with a child carrying on elsewhere in the house, they try to act as if all is peachy. They don't succeed. Despite the flowing Sancerre, or maybe because of it, Hubert brings into the awkward conversation a scientific paper he's learned about that might preempt a similar article being prepared by Henry. Hearing about this, Henry becomes increasingly agitated; he needs the paper he's publishing after a three-year lull to make a splash so that he can get a promotion. His display of nerves provokes an edgy response from Sonia, who disdains her husband's obsequious behavior around Hubert. The charged atmosphere also upsets Inez, a woman extremely distressed by her husband's treatment of her at parties. Within a short time, the four dispirited partygoers are on an attack-and-defend spree. The gathering turns into a hostess's nightmare: too little food and too much dissension.

Linda Emond in Life x 3(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Linda Emond in Life x 3
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Having hurled her characters at each other, Reza runs the same basic scenario twice more, with only Gary Yershon's anxiety-provoking music and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone's anxiety-provoking laser-beam effects to separate the inconclusive vignettes. Once again, Sonia and Henry are annoyed with each other when Hubert and Inez show up unexpectedly. But during the second and third go-round, Hubert becomes romantically turned on by Sonia and she's reluctant to give in only because she doesn't want to be caught; the two of them have apparently been sharing a fling that isn't mentioned initially. Then, Sonia seems disinclined to give the smug Hubert the time of day, much less a surreptitious smooch. As scenes two and three play out, Henry is less overtly concerned about the threatening article, and the off-stage kid is less and less intrusive. The only sounds coming from the previously obstreperous Henry are muted pleasantries and the only sounds coming from the boy's room are the soothing murmurs of a Fox and the Hound cassette.

Reza's objective must have been to create a hard-hitting picture of marital tension. In her introductory scene, she does so with fast strokes. The first line of dialogue is "He wants a cookie" and it instantly has the audience chuckling -- especially as spoken through clenched teeth by John Turturro, a master of clenched-teeth proclamation. Even Turturro's hair seems, as always, to be clenched. Sonia's response, "He just brushed his teeth," touches off more chuckles thanks to one of Helen Hunt's signature declarative readings. Reza immediately proves that she can pull an audience in: As she piles resentment on aggravation, she paints the recognizable picture of a couple running out of patience with each other and a second couple demonstrating the deleterious effects of connubial stress. In his role as Hubert, Brent Spiner is quietly unctuous. Linda Emond, with streaked hair and a dull brown suit (Thompson also did the costumes), is thoroughly convincing as a woman who has a run in her stockings and can't stop thinking about it.

But what is Reza getting at by replaying her introductory scene and its unedifying variations? Beats me -- and it also beat my companion and a friend we ran into as we exited the commodious theater-in-the-round. While agreeing that we'd laughed a good deal, the three of us couldn't make much more of the play than that. Yet the structure of Life x 3 seems to indicate strongly that Reza has something significant in mind. My best guess is that she's showing three moderately different versions of the same disturbing scene as a tease for the audience, subliminally challenging us to examine our own responses to each of the scenes and to decide which version is the one we believe to be the episode that actually takes place. She seems to be saying that whichever one chooses implies a negative or positive attitude towards life.

Then again, maybe Reza isn't trying at all to provoke such a response. Be prepared to laugh at -- and with -- Life x 3 , but be prepared also to ask when it's over, "What was I laughing at?"