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Life X 3

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One is always seeking (if one happens to be a theatrical producer) the small-cast, one-set domestic comedy that'll cost nothing to put up and run forever. Said show should be funny but not ridiculous, clever without being brainy, and pointed but never edgy. French playwright Yasmina Reza's Life X 3, in a translation by Christopher Hampton and now at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, is, alas, not it.

And the funny thing is, it should be. This comedy about two couples spending one lousy evening together has all the earmarks -- funny, thoughtful and small-scoped -- but Reza just can't carry it off. She burst onto the scene a few years back with Art, her terrific, and terrifically received, small-cast, one-set domestic comedy about friendship and culture. Since then, each of Reza's plays has been greeted with less enthusiasm; her latest, The Spanish Play, was, to put it mildly, eviscerated by the critics. (John Heilpern of The New York Observer: "Ms. Reza has made a specialty of leaving the boring parts in.")

Life X 3 opens with academic Henri and his wife, Sonia, at home, where Henri's colleague Hubert and wife, Inés, arrive for a dinner scheduled the following night. The scene plays out, it ends badly and the lights go down. Moments later the lights come up and the play starts again, with Henri and Sonia about to receive the day-early Hubert and Inés. Again it goes badly, but for different reasons, and the lights go down. Moments later we restart it all again, and again it goes badly, for yet other reasons, and this time the lights come down for good.

The problem, I think, is that Reza finds herself writing in the same field as British farce-master Alan Ayckbourn, but without his mechanical skills. Ayckbourn is the author of countless plays about suburban couples, each featuring some playwriting gimmick usually involving fractured theatrical time and space. With its same scene run three times, Reza's play seems to be headed that way ... but nothing happens. One problem is that the core nature of each character changes from scene to scene, so we're not really watching the same people living through three different realities; the tone of each vignette is radically different. Yet while the complications may vary, we know the end result at the beginning -- it will always end badly -- so I'm not sure where the drama is. It's indicative of this play's fuzzy-headedness that you could perform the three skits in any order you chose and it wouldn't make the least bit of difference.

Jesse Berger directs a fine cast -- Brandon Williams, Caris Vujcec, Rob Breckenridge and, especially, Susan Angelo as Inés -- but to what end I couldn't tell you.

Life X 3 continues through April 8. Pittsburgh Public Theatre, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-316-1600.

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