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A Parallelogram
Steppenwolf Theatre

A Parallelogram
Tom Irwin and Kate Arrington
If you still harbor bad memories of high school geometry class, there's no need to let them keep you away from this new play by Bruce Norris. The parallelogram of this title is not the four-sided box with two pairs of parallel lines, but a possibly imaginary device possessed by the main character, a thirtyish woman named Bee. The device, a box like a TV remote control that allows her to move forward and back again through the events of her life, is a gift of the woman from the future. Also possibly imaginary, the woman is apparently Bee herself at an older age. The older woman, called Bee 2, explains that all events past and future co-exist in the same universe. Time moves across the universe in parallel lines in a way that allows them to intersect. Or something like that. With this theory, Norris asks two big questions. 1—If we knew the future would we be able to change it ("not much" is the answer), and 2—Is there any point in living if we can't?

Though A Parallelogram is not concerned with quadrilateral shapes, it's pretty diagrammatic anyway. The philosophical question is raised clearly enough, but there's not much reason to care about how the answer might affect the lives of the characters. Bee and her middle-aged boyfriend Jay are in the early stages of a love affair which seems to have gone bad rather quickly, an affair which has had grave consequences. The wife Jay left for Bee has fallen into an alcoholic depression, leaving their children essentially parentless. Months before the action of the play begins, Bee has had a hysterectomy, which has sent her into something of a depression of her own. Even the vacation Jay planned for the two of them failed to help lift her spirits. She has a sense of near-hopelessness that stays pretty much at the same level throughout the play, while Jay is generally angry and self-absorbed most of the time. Accordingly, before we learn the answer to question 1 ("Can we change the future?" Not much?), we learn its corollary question, "who cares?". The two exist only to illustrate Norris' theory and to provide targets for his biting (and often genuinely funny) wit.

Norris' dialogue is well served by Steppenwolf's cast. Kate Arrington plays Bee with a touching sense of regret and fatalism that her life, which has already gone south, is (according to Bee 2) not going to get much better. Her failure to take much of a journey makes the character ultimately tedious. Tom Irwin's depiction of Jay's self-pity and impatience with Bee are quite funny, but (as is reinforced in one of the play's more amusing segments), he's an asshole throughout and that ultimately wears thin as well. The Bees from the future—who may be real or imagined by Bee 1—are played drolly by Marylouise Burke as amusingly detached from the couple's drama. Anticipating a big fight between Bee 1 and Jay, she says "I remember this part," looking forward to the scene as if it were from a favorite movie. The fourth member of the cast is Tim Bickel, who plays the humble Latino gardener (Jay Jay) who earns a place in Bee's life.

Norris' theorem of time travel is supported through a clever set by Todd Rosenthal, in which a bland modern condominium morphs into a hospital room, then to the condo at a later time in a state of disrepair. Time and space on stage are traversed as easily as they are with the mechanical parallelogram of the title.

Director Anna D. Shapiro and the cast nail the tone of Norris' writing quite handily. His darkly comic and cynical take on his characters is delivered by the performers so effectively that the audience scarcely has time to worry that not a whole lot is being said here. If life is largely about the choices we make, and if we struggle to make the right (or at least reasonably smart) ones, is it comforting or disturbing to be told those choices don't matter as much as we believe they do? It's a good question and while Norris comes down on the side of predestination, he doesn't make an especially great case for it.

A Parallelogram will play through August 29, 2010, in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. For tickets, call 312-335-1650, visit the box office or buy online at www.steppenwolf.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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