What if the same dinner party occurred three times over, with a few minor incidents changed each time? What if, say, the 6-year-old in the next room who bawls through Dinner No. 1 is quiet in Nos. 2 and 3? Or the friend who behaves himself the first time through makes a pass at your wife the second time? Or the phone call you take during Dinner No. 3 allays the job terrors raised in 1 and 2?
Or, like, so what?
David Fendig, left, and Chandler Vinton in a scene that doesn't bear repeating.
(Stan Barouh -- Round House Theatre)
The meager dramatic permutations outlined in "Life x 3," the flavorless little exercise receiving its Washington area debut at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, fade from memory so quickly the play seems to have the theatrical properties of vanishing cream. If the petty distractions and flirtations and mishaps of a group of upper-middle-class careerists are your thing, though, you're in luck: The evening is three, three, three half-hour sitcoms in one.
It's a safe wager that had "Life x 3" not been written by Yasmina Reza, it would have meekly cleared its throat and then swiftly been drowned out in the din of a thousand more significant cultural events. But Reza is author of the breakout international hit "Art," a modest, entertaining play about male friendship and the purchase of an all-white painting. So attention was bound to be paid to "Life x 3," Reza's follow-up foray into the realm of commercial cerebration.
"Life x 3," adapted from the French by Christopher Hampton, seems to be inspired by the witty constructions of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. A narrative contortionist, Ayckbourn often experiments with plot to tell the same story from multiple perspectives. His "Norman Conquests" (1973), a trilogy of interlocking romantic comedies, is just such an example. Reza appropriates this triptych style for "Life x 3," giving us three delicately modified versions of a rather banal evening. Henry (David Fendig) and Sonia (Chandler Vinton) are a Parisian couple surprised at their doorstep by another couple, Hubert (Paul Morella) and Inez (Kathryn Kelley), who seem to have confused the date of Henry and Sonia's dinner invitation.
How many matters, minor and a teeny bit less minor, are affected by such errors! Reza is in a sense exploring on a micro level the Butterfly Effect, the theory that says that if an insect flaps its wings in St. Louis, it will cause a hurricane in St. Croix. Or something. At the awkward party and in each of its two revisions, there are subtle variations -- a line of dialogue is transferred from one character to another or a character's condition is altered, from panicked to serene -- in ways that to some degree transform mood and outcome.
It all feels, though, like a vacuous parlor game. None of these people exists in more than two dimensions, and their humdrum conversations about the office and child-rearing bear on nothing but the painfully familiar. The only certifiably human element is a child whose offstage whining (the voice of Lindsey Spencer) indicates he may be the only person in the house who knows how to get what he wants at all times.
Round House has recruited a talented director, Lou Jacob, and four good actors who try to get the job done. More than that you cannot expect of any of them.
The pieces of James Kronzer's set, a living room dominated by a portrait of the universe, spin into new positions for each of the retellings, and for some strange reason, the central turntable of the set revolves slowly all through the final scene. Perhaps they're alluding to the fact that as mechanical theater pieces go, this one never stops its lurching.
Life x 3 by Yasmina Reza, translation by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Lou Jacob. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Ryan Rumery. Approximately 90 minutes. Through May 1 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.