Like a 19th-century French impressionist painter, contemporary playwright Yasmina Reza reproduces mundane moments in our lives and leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions about the meaning.
But rather than using pigment powders and linseed oil, her medium consists of the vagaries and subtle nuances of intimate social discourse and the power of words.
Her Tony Award-winning “Art” is a one-act conversation between three middle-aged men who are longtime friends. What begins as an intellectual argument over aesthetics cleverly unravels and becomes a play about male relationships with little enlightenment offered on the subject.
In “The Unexpected Man,” Reza places an author and a devoted fan on a train for an hour. Though they exchange few words with each other, they size each other up in thoughts shared with the audience with little illumination on what we should take away from them doing so.
Her “God of Carnage” offers a 90-minute treatise on what lies beneath civilized speech. In the play, one child has hurt another at a public park and the two sets of parents meet to discuss the matter in a polite manner. However, the parents become increasingly childish, the evening devolves into chaos, and the play ends.
Written in 2000, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, and currently being staged by Cesear’s Forum at Playhouse Square’s miniscule Kennedy’s Down Under performance space – where, quite appropriately, no one has an unobstructed view of the stage – is Reza’s one-act opus on unpleasantness, “Life x 3.”
The play is an exploration of a dinner party gone wrong. Astrophysicist Henry (Brian Bowers) and former lawyer Sonia (Tricia Bestic) are settling in for the night. As the lights come up, we find them debating about whether to give their screeching six-year old son (voiced offstage by Mary Alice Beck) a cookie. And then the doorbell rings. They quickly realize that Henry’s boss, Hubert (Dana Hart), and his wife, Inez (Julia Kolibab), have arrived for dinner on the wrong night.
Henry, a temperamental milquetoast on the cusp of professional ruin, is dependent on Hubert’s approval for self-esteem and advancement, and so eagerly invites the couple in.
Sonia, hardnosed and perpetually impatient, is mortified to be caught in her robe, without a dinner plan, and with this husband.
Inez vehemently disapproves of the practice of giving a child a cookie at night, and everything else that crosses her path, and is in a foul mood because of a run in her stocking.
Hubert, abundantly self-absorbed and pathologically condescending, is amused by the circumstances of this meeting and settles in for a long evening of marital tension.
Meanwhile, the 6-year-old is screeching in another room and nothing but disappointing snacks and Sauvignon Blanc are served in this one. Let the games begin.
The acting in this production is absolutely first-rate, with each performer fully inhabiting the grotesque creature they’ve been assigned and realistically responding to the volumes of Sancerre they’ve been consuming. The fine performances benefit from crisp stage direction by Greg Cesear.
All of this takes place in a small apartment that, while designed by Michael Larochelle and lit by Andrew Kaletta, has the feel of a minimalist painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir with just enough furnishings to set the scene.
The evening’s entertainment is very funny, but it is of the devastating variety since private lives and intimate conversations are exposed and laid bare, and words – which Hubert notes are “not aroma therapy” – serve as shrapnel. “Life x 3” is loaded with confrontational conjugal interplay that agitates as it amuses and is as tragic as it is comical.
And then the dinner party, with its abusive menage a quatre and disquieting tranche de vie, is repeated twice more.
Each enactment is altered by a subtle change in the interpersonal dynamic, but the vicious undercurrent is undeterred. Nothing in the scenic design or staging reflects or complements these shifts in perspective, which is unfortunate, but it is no doubt the result of the small confines and limited options provided by the performance space.
Though it is unclear why Reza replays with slight alteration this disturbing scene of altercation, each variation is a master class in performance, an opportunity to engage in communal schadenfreude, and the cause of deafening silence if riding home after the show with a spouse. Quite a bargain at $18 a seat.