Is There Life After Art?

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The stage set is as spare as the text. A divan, two chairs, a coffee table littered with cocktail snacks, a starry backdrop of the Milky Way. Add four actors and the offstage bawling of a child, and you have the minimalist makings for social meltdown in Trois Versions de la Vie (Life x 3), the new creation by French playwright Yasmina Reza that opened last month in Paris' Theâtre Antoine.

The play begins with Henri (Richard Berry), a flailing astrophysicist, and his wife Sonia (Catherine Frot), arguing over whether to let their six-year-old eat cookies in bed. Impatience turns to panic when the doorbell rings and Henry's boss Hubert (Stephane Freiss) and his loopy wife Ines (playwright Reza herself) show up for dinner — a day earlier than expected. With axes to grind and nothing to eat but chocolate fingers and processed cheese — plus liberal quantities of Sancerre — the characters quickly reveal their tragic flaws, misplaced ambitions and red-hot desires. In a clever twist the author takes the same situation and lets it unfold three different ways.

Reza says the play is about "the infinitely large and the infinitely small" and whether our actions — be they over child rearing or the "flattening of halos" (Henri's cosmic speciality) — count for anything. "I wanted to show that whatever posture you take, it doesn't matter," says the 41-year-old playwright, who lives in Paris. "It's really an argument in favor of catastrophe. At least when things go badly, you feel alive."

Since her wildly successful 1994 play Art, Reza has become a global name in theater. The work has been adapted into 35 languages and is now in its fifth year in London's West End. But even if Art's planetary success opened up opportunities, its aftermath nearly plunged Reza into an artistic abyss. "It was a very troubling time for me," she recalls. "Everywhere I went people talked about Art. I was afraid that I'd be seen as a singer with only one song." Instead, Reza went on to write two novels, two plays and a film script, act in a movie and now, in Life x 3, take to the stage herself. Not bad for someone who failed her drama school entrance exams and worried later about whether there was life after Art.

In part, Reza rebounded by seeking solace in personal writing. In 1997 she produced Hammerklavier, a pencil-slim memoir of 44 autobiographical and fictional vignettes, followed two years later by Une Desolation, a novel about an old man's failed existence. Both were translated into 10 languages. Meanwhile, Reza's plays found new audiences. Her first, Conversations After a Burial, written in 1987, recently finished a run in London. The Unexpected Man (1995) is currently playing to packed houses in New York City. January saw the release of Le Pique-nique de Lulu Kreutz, Reza's first screenplay, directed by Didier Martiny — her companion and father of her two children. In September she finished filming a supporting role in French director Andre Techine's yet unreleased Terminus des Anges.

Not since the 1950s and the social satires of Jean Anouilh has a French playwright managed to break through the barriers of language and culture to reach the West End and Broadway. Reza's atypical use of the French language ("dense and short, with no water mixed in," she says) and her own origins — born in Paris to a Russian emigre father and a Hungarian mother — explain why she feels less like a French writer than one of Central European Jewish roots. British playwright Christopher Hampton, who has translated Art and three other Reza plays, compares her unadorned style to that of Harold Pinter. "I think she's one of the most interesting writers in theater today," says Hampton. "She has a unique turn of voice and a set of concerns nobody else is thinking about. Her plays travel very well."

Nowhere is this more evident than in Life x 3, which is also being staged in Vienna, Athens and London. The added draw in the Paris production, of course, is Reza herself, convincing as the amiable motormouth Ines. Patrice Kerbrat, who directed Art and other Reza plays, unexpectedly offered her the part after another actress backed out. "I didn't hesitate for a second. My friends said it was social suicide, that I'd get assassinated by critics for being omnipresent," laughs Reza. "But that kind of risk doesn't bother me. On the contrary, it excites me." Judging from the applause at the Theâtre Antoine, she's not alone.