PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Matthew Warchus

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Matthew Warchus Director Matthew Warchus has made significant impressions (of varying complexion) on the New York theatregoing public.
Matthew Warchus
Matthew Warchus

He's staged such productions as True West, with its role-switching actors John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Follies, the starkly reimagined revival for the Roundabout Theatre Company. But he is still probably most closely associated with the work of playwright Yasmina Reza. It is this British artist who has introduced France's most successful playwright to American ears and eyes. The collaboration has a rousing start with the Tony-winning Broadway production of Art and continued with the Off-Broadway presentation of An Unexpected Man. For their third Gotham engagement, appropriately titled Life x 3 (the play's four characters enact three versions of the same evening), Reza and Warchus are back on Broadway. The director spoke to Playbill On-Line about Life with Reza.

Playbill On-Line: You are back in New York directing a Yasmina Reza play. Does it feel like coming home?
Matthew Warchus: Having done all her plays in England as well, I'm almost constantly immersed in her writing. Her writing absolutely resonates with me and I am very comfortable with her voice now.

PBOL: Having done all three of her plays, what do you feel are her recurring themes?
MW: I often find her work is about splitting the atom. She looks at very tiny, minute and mundane things in life and splits them open. Her writing is constantly full of triviality, grasping for tiny things like olives in Art, and in The Unexpected Man they talk about Ex-Lax, and in Life x 3, Cheez-its and Chocolate Fingers. She's very honest about life. There's always something rather humiliating about what she depicts, none more so than in Life x 3. You see your own childish and desperate behavior reflected back at you. We're all guilty of the moments of yearning or selfishness or obsessiveness you find in Art. A friend of mine came the other day and said, "You know, it's such a relief to see someone shout 'Shut the fuck up!' to their child [as Helen Hunt's character does in Life x 3]. I did it to mine the other day and it felt like I was the only one ever in the world to have done it." She tells the truth, Yasmina Reza does, and she does it by looking unflinchingly at ordinary life. I think they are very philosophical, her plays. You know, it's a strange thing, I described this play the other day as being a hybrid between "Seinfeld" and Edward Albee—"Seinfeld" because of how comic triviality can be milked for comic potential, and Albee because of the underlying violence.

PBOL: Certainly, the two married couples clashing in Life x 3 are reminiscent of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
MW: And clashing within the marriages, too. But the additional thing in her plays is yearning and humanity. She's not a spiritual or religious person, but there is in all of her plays a longing for healing. In The Unexpected Man, they talk a lot about life and death and why we are here. In Life x 3 they talk about being under the canopy of the cosmos and about people's struggle to figure out the tangle of their lives.

PBOL: What do we learn by seeing the same evening played out in three different ways? What it Reza trying to show us?
MW: The fragility of life. Every moment we live has many alternatives and all of them seem plausible and possible. Our life is very fragile. Our destinies are an accumulation of choices and random moments. We can get ourselves into an extreme situation in life by an accumulation of details and some of them are in our control and some are out of our control. The external force of a telephone call coming at a specific time makes a massive difference. In this play, we discover people can behave in different ways in different situations. Character is not only about what you say and do, but is some underlying state. That's very fascinating, you can imagine, to rehearse. Who am I if I say this in one life, and say something else in another. I'm the same person, but I'm capable of behaving in all these different ways. PBOL: As you say, that must have been a challenge for you and the actors to rehearse—the same characters, but in three different plays.
MW: I find that whole variation form really fascinated. "Run, Lola, Run," that was a film with three versions of life. It's used by people a lot. "Veronique." "Groundhog Day." There's something very moving about it, I think partly because it gives the audience an almost God-like perspective on people's lives.

PBOL: Is there anything markedly different about this production from the original London staging? Of course, you are doing it in the round this time.
MW: I think I'm digging deeper in this production. I think this production has more extremity in it, the comedy is more shrill and the drama is darker. I'm not really sure I mined it for all its potential in London. I encouraged the actors in rehearsal to think of the audience: What on earth do they think is funny? How dare they laugh at me? They earnestly adopted that approach. You can't do that on a proscenium stage. Another thing different between London and here is we did another round of translating to Americanize it. We reassessed every line. This is so much closer to the French and it's got much more muscularity and the right kind of colloquialisms. I think we're pretty close to the original here.

PBOL: Of course, you know Circle in the Square well—a space that is often considered very difficult—having done True West there.
MW: It's my favorite theatre in New York. It's something like 700 people in there. It's a real nice audience in a very intimate environment, and everybody's got a clear direct relationship to the stage. It's actor friendly as well. I find it really exciting.