Adults are as enchanted by the prospect of “do-overs” as children. How intoxicating is the notion that we can edit history, making it better this time, more dramatic or just funnier?
These “what ifs” of life form the underlying idea of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s suave comedy “Life x 3,” in which a disastrous dinner party gets reproduced in triplicate. As in the movies “Groundhog Day” and “Sliding Doors,” the scenarios change each time while the characters and the dialogue remain essentially the same.
Miss Reza takes a farcical premise — an appalling social gathering and a cranky 6-year-old who refuses to go to bed — and mines it not only for comedy, but also for far-reaching insights on personal choice and perception.
Every choice has heft and consequence, and our perceptions of these choices guide our lives either positively or negatively. Although the play dabbles in deep cosmic matters, it is kept dancing by Miss Reza’s smart dialogue (translated by Christopher Hampton) and the self-assurance of Lou Jacobi’s direction.
“Life x 3” begins in the stylish home of Henry (David Fendig), an insecure theoretical physicist, and Sonia (Chandler Vinton), a lawyer-turned-financial-barracuda. She is in her bathrobe; he returns repeatedly to an unseen bedroom, frantic to get their young son to sleep. The child, heard only in a wheedling voice that every parent knows too well, holds his parents hostage, demanding cookies, apples, hugs and a glass of water.
Suddenly, the doorbell rings. It is Henry’s boss, the unctuous blowhard Hubert (Paul Morella) and his wife, Inez (Kathryn Kelley), a day early for the dinner party. There is no food, save Cheese-Its and bottles of Sancerre. Trying to salvage the evening, they drink a lot and snack a little.
Miss Reza hurls theatrical fireballs into the proceedings, such as Hubert’s crass lust for Sonia, Inez’s low self-esteem and low tolerance for alcohol and Henry’s discovery that Mexican researchers may have beaten him to the scientific punch.
The first scenario is played for pure, frenzied laughs, as Sonia and Henry cope with their surprise guests and their difficult child while trying to maintain a civilized veneer. Miss Vinton and Mr. Fendig literally throw themselves into the parts, tumbling and flinging themselves around James Kronzer’s revolving set like neurotic acrobats.
In the second “do-over,” Inez gets drunk and candid, blurting out secrets of her unhappy marriage and Hubert’s penchant for amusing himself at everyone’s expense. Henry is her partner in wine, becoming as petulant and bratty as his child.
Miss Kelley ably pulls off the delicate lurches and carefully slurred speech of someone looped but trying to stay in control while also seizing the opportunity to get a few things off her chest. Mr. Morella is scarily good as the smug, sarcastic Hubert, a man just begging for comeuppance.
The final version finds the foursome melancholy and muted. The power has shifted, with Henry expansive and in control of himself and Sonia every inch the at-ease, accomplished wife. Hubert shows his passionate side, both in his description of string theory and his pursuit of Sonia. Inez, too fragile and sensitive for her own good, sits off to the side, watching.
The characters in “Life x 3” are given three chances to deal with the same basic circumstances. It is fascinating to watch them react to the subtle shifts, their behavior not always making things better or right, merely different. In this play, as in life, choice is a gift and a burden.
WHAT: “Life x 3” by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton
WHERE: Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through May 1.
TICKETS: $29 to $45