Two years ago the Studio Theatre at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis mounted a well-acted production of Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Dinner with Friends. The current offering, Life (x) 3 by Yasmina Reza, might well be retitled Dinnerless with Enemies. The similarities between the plays are striking and immediate. Both concern two couples whose marriages are less than solid; both scripts play fast and loose with time. But whereas Dinner with Friends is a meaty exploration of contemporary relationships, Life (x) 3 is more akin to a thin broth, lacking in nutrients.
The evening's axis is an intended dinner party at which a talented but down-on-his-luck scientist hopes to impress his superior. When the pompous boss and his alcoholic wife arrive a night early, bedlam ensues -- as indeed it did back in 1936 when Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman used the same ploy in their Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy You Can't Take It with You. But in that comedy, the dinner party screw-up was a mere plot device; here it is the play's underlying premise and reason for being. In Life (x) 3 the grim, foodless evening is enacted three times, each with its own slightly altered permutations. With each telling the four protagonists grow more bluntly unsparing of each other.
This play has been likened to Akira Kurosawa's infinitely absorbing Rashomon, whose three variations of the same event comment on the elusiveness of truth. But Life (x) 3 is at best a laptop Rashomon, a lightweight tale that seeks to intrigue viewers with details rather than profundities. It's a lounge-act version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an evening in which "the incongruities of the occasion" take precedence over any sustained theme. If the material seems slight, it is also harmless, inoffensive and sometimes amusing.
Thom Sesma was a good choice to direct this piece. As one of the cast members of the Studio Rep's Dinner with Friends, he's already familiar with the physical space -- and is quick to recognize the space that needs to be filled out in this less-than-airtight script. He's filled it with a production that is surprisingly fresh. Note, for instance, the spare scenic design by John Roslevich Jr. Often Life (x) 3 is staged on a circular set (perhaps to point up the evening's social circle). But here the action occurs on a triangle, neatly connecting the visuals to the title.
All four actors do terrific jobs of investing their one-note characters with touches of humanity. Michael Rupert smothers his pompous boss with a sorghum of insufferable smugness. Then when the tables are turned, Rupert's defensive toe-tapping is delightfully deft. As his sot of a wife, Mary Gordon Murray occasionally finds moments of poignance and pathos reminiscent of the doomed Birdie in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. As the sad-sack scientist, Mark Jacoby delivers a portrayal as rumpled as his clothes. One senses that he cannot even manage his own hair, much less his life. Although this wretch of a scientist is as subservient to his offstage six-year-old son as he is to his prig of a boss, Jacoby controls his despair without giving in to easy shouting or whining.
Finally there is Bridget Ann White, whose calibrated performance as the put-upon hostess justifies the entire evening. Clad in a svelte dressing gown that emphasizes her lithe, regal frame, White cloaks her cool contempt in the guise of a sleek swan. In his poem "The Second Coming," William Butler Yeats wrote, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...." As anarchy becomes the order of this intermissionless, 80-minute evening, White finds a center that is missing in the text, and she invests it with nuance, shading and the sense of possibility.
In a far weightier play than this, King Lear advises Cordelia to "speak again," because "nothing will come of nothing." In Life (x) 3 there's a good deal of speaking again, yet it still adds up to little more than nothing. But thanks to White and her three peers, at least this "nothing" is performed with poise and persuasion.