In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character is forced to rehash the same day over and over until he becomes a better person. What makes it interesting, of course, is that Murray's awareness of his situation allows him to change the consequences of his day by changing his behavior. People love that movie. It lets them daydream about redemption or, more superficially, the power of omniscience. It allows them to imagine a scenario where they might get free do-overs ad infinitum until their lives are exactly as they want them. If only.
Yasmina Reza's Life X 3 explores a similar concept, but in this case, it's a more cerebral experiment. What if you took a particular evening involving particular characters and replayed it three times, only changing the characters' general attitudes? What if a character holds her tongue in one take, but speaks her mind in another? What if a character first shows kindness, then flips to cruelty? It's an algebraic equation where the people are the variables that change the outcome.
Each of the play's three acts repeats the same night's event, in the same place—the Paris apartment of Henry and his wife Sonia. They've just put their son, Arnaud, to bed and Sonia, a lawyer, is in her bathrobe doing paperwork. Henry, an astrophysicist, is trying to appease Arnaud when there's a knock on the door. Henry's colleague and superior Hubert Finidori has arrived with his wife, Inez, a day too early for a dinner. It's a disaster. There's no food. Nothing's prepared. But Henry and Sonia invite the Finidoris in anyway, offering them ladyfingers, Cheezits and plenty of wine. Things unravel and/or mutate from there, depending on the act. And, on the surface, it's a funny sitcom with dramatic intervals.
But the idea of Life X 3 is more annoying than philosophically profound. At best, it's like a cool theater exercise not fully developed. At worst, it's like a choose-your-own-adventure book with highbrow dialog. The only thing that elevates the Montana Actors' Theatre production from being a stunted bore is the company's spirited and engaging acting.
In the first act, Henry (David Mills-Low) is paralyzed by anxiety about his professional paper titled "On the Flatness of Galaxy Halos." Sonia (Sarina Hart) has no sympathy for him and they fight angrily over every little thing. Mills-Low and Hart manage to be almost slapstick in their representation of a couple at their wits' end. You can almost see Mills-Low sweating like a cartoon of a man in crisis. And yet they add nuances to their gestures and tone that give their characters dimension, saving them from caricature.
In the second act, Mills-Low's Henry is more in control, with more complex reactions. When he says, "I'm doomed," he achieves a cheerful self-destructiveness that slyly offsets him from the far more hopeless, pathetic "I'm doomed" Henry of act one. Repetition of lines from act to act—sometimes changed by the character's tone and sometimes changed because a different character says them—ties each act together in an intriguing way, mostly because this cast (and director Grant Olson) takes the time to tend to such details.
Nathan McTague as Hubert and Michelle Edwards as Inez are less dimensional in the first act. McTague plays Hubert's soft-spoken arrogance with precision, and for that, he's like most villains you love to hate. But he leaves little room for variation, and he has limited dynamics with the rest of the characters. Only in a later act, when Hubert observes the gap between "reality and representation," and between "object and word," do we get a sense that his more stereotyped Hubert might be all part of the play's plan and not just a failure on McTague's part.
Edwards gets more fascinating too with each act, going from submissive and haughty to melancholy existentialist. In one scene where she finally stands up to Hubert, she received applause from the crowd for a wonderfully delivered monologue.
By then, it's a little late to enjoy the characters' developments from act to act. It becomes more of a task to take the play's scientific references to flat, spiral and elliptical galaxies and apply them—sometimes in retrospect—to the characters' personality changes. It gets a bit cloudy.
Life X 3 is a play to watch for fun. It's funny and weird and, with the way the cast interacts, the characters could be waiting for a bus to come and still be interesting to behold. That's because there isn't much gravity to the characters' consequences, and therein the problem.
Sure, if you have a good attitude you might be able to save yourself from self-destruction. There's a simple lesson in that. But, what more? Even Groundhog Day, which is no masterpiece, ends with some deeper sense of what we should get out of it. With Life X 3, if you think about the concept a little too much, if you try to attribute the play's universal concepts to something bigger, it sort of deflates or implodes or, like matter exposed to the universe's dark energy, sort of disappears.
Life X 3 continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, Sept. 10–Saturday, Sept. 12 and Wednesday Sept. 16–Saturday, Sept. 19 at 7:30 PM nightly. $10/$12 Fridays and Saturdays.