The Marriage-Go-Round

Special Features   The Marriage-Go-Round
Helen Hunt sees aspects of herself not only in her character but also in every other one onstage in Life (x) 3, Yasmina Reza's uncompromising look at matrimony

Helen Hunt in Life (x) 3.
Helen Hunt in Life (x) 3. Photo by Joan Marcus

Toward the end of Life (x) 3, Yasmina Reza's triple-prismed, lemon-flavored marital Ping-Pong for four hands at the Circle in the Square, a woman named Sonia delivers an appraisal of her husband:

Henry wants things to happen and he wants them not to happen. He wants to succeed and at the same time not to succeed, to be somebody and to be nobody... [H]e wants to be helped and he wants to be rejected. That's Henry for you... a man who slides from euphoria to melancholy and from melancholy back to euphoria, who suddenly gets excited, leaps out of bed and thinks life is full of promise... then, suddenly, for no reason, is overwhelmed and paralyzed, so that haste and impatience are replaced by doubt and insecurity and desire is replaced by doubt and boundless insecurity; some people can cope with life and some people can't.

One wonders whether the speech reminds level-headed Helen Hunt, who plays Sonia, of anyone she knows.

"Yeah," she says. "It reminds me of parts of myself. I feel I'm as outspoken and fiery as she is, and as — whatever — as he is, and... I feel all four of these characters" — husband Henry, played by John Turturro; cocksure Hubert, played by Brent Spiner; blistering, boozing Inez, Hubert's wife, played by Linda Emond — "are inside me. Maybe a little less of Brent's character, but the other three I see in myself."

How about Carol of "As Good As It Gets" — hard-pressed, no-nonsense Carol, the waitress and mom who gives boorish Jack Nicholson the back of her hand until at last she gives him her heart (and wins a Best Actress Oscar in the process)? Does Ms. Hunt see anything of herself in Carol? "Yeah, absolutely. In fact," the actress says, "I was doing ‘Mad About You’ [her hit young-marrieds sitcom with Paul Reiser] at the same time the film was being made, and I said to [director-writer] Jim Brooks, 'I'm more like the character in ‘Mad’ than the character in your film,' and Jim Brooks said, 'I'm not so sure.'"

Which fits in with Ms. Hunt's account of how she landed the role of Carol: "I auditioned, prayed, wanted the part very, very badly. Thought I was too young for it. A long shot. Kind of busted my way in the door."

And what was her route to the part of Sonia?

"Matthew Warchus [who directed Yasmina Reza's Art and is directing Life (x) 3] called me about two years ago. I didn't know him, just his work, and I guess he knew mine. He asked me to read this new play. I read it, was fascinated by it, couldn't quite get it. So then I had a cup of tea with him, and by the end of that tea — a long tea — I was quite sure I wanted to do it."

What did he explain to you?

"He described how... how... I can't remember." A toss of her dirty-blonde bangs. "I could feel there were these four wonderful parts, but just what the play was saying, I was not sure of."

Sure now?

"Not sure, but very... intrigued."

The three short acts of Life (x) 3 (no intermission, just brief blackouts) are a dissection of marriage, incompatibility, making-do, success, failure, parenthood, intellectual mismatch, career crisis, survival of the unfittest — a salt-and-pepper of laughs, something of a combine of Thurber's and Albee's wars between the sexes.

"Yes," says Helen Hunt, "I see Albee in this play, I see [Pinter's] Betrayal in this play, I see Chekhov, but most of all I certainly see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — some nights more than others. This play is a brutal look at marriage."

The lean and lovely Ms. Hunt has theatre and cinema in her bones, as well as New York City and Los Angeles. "I think I'll live in both cities my whole life." At present she lives here, downtown, and, in fact, from a rooftop saw the World Trade Center go down on 9/11.

"From the time I was four or five, my father [director Gordon Hunt] took me to everything. I saw Godspell even before it moved into a theatre — saw it in a basement. I saw a million Shakespeares-in-the-Park" — and was herself Bianca in a Taming of the Shrew for Joe Papp in 1990.

Jack Nicholson, Miss Hunt. What's waitress Carol's fellow Oscar winner really like?

"You sort of expect a persona to walk into the room. And what walks into the room is an actor's actor."

It takes one to know one.

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