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A Parallelogram

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 2, 2017

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Anita Gillette
Photo by Joan Marcus

Bruce Norris's intriguing and darkly comic science fiction-inspired play, A Parallelogram, has been around for a while, ever since its debut at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2010. But it only now has come to roost in New York, where it opened tonight at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater. Or maybe, through some quantum shift in the space-time continuum, it was here already but our experience of it was erased from our timestream.

In any event, unless you are averse to fourth wall-breaking, Twilight Zone-ish story telling, it is well worth the visit — if only to be in the company of the delightful Anita Gillette. She plays three different characters, all of them older versions of the thirty-something Bee (Celia Keenan-Bolger). It seems that the older woman has come from the future bearing a gift (or a curse) in the form a device which will allow her younger self to jiggle with time and to learn what's going to happen to her down the road. There is some mumbo-jumbo explanation as to how this all works, but it's probably just better to suspend your disbelief and go along for the heady ride.

Through the first half of the play, Ms. Gillette's character mostly hangs out in a chair in the bedroom Bee shares with her self-absorbed boyfriend Jay (Stephen Kunken). Bee can see her, though no one else can. The older woman waits patiently, playing solitaire, eating Oreos, and puffing away on cigarettes while Bee and Jay carry out a desultory domestic argument, including whether or not Bee has been smoking. She denies it, but Jay can smell smoke.

Eventually, the older woman explains that her hand-held device, one that looks rather like a TV remote, is what she uses to manipulate time (the odor of smoke is one of the things that leaks through; can't be helped). She describes the mundane future that Bee will experience, and even a plague that will kill a large portion of the population in about 50 years. Though not to worry; Bee will survive, and, actually, a less-crowded world is kind of nice. "No one bothers you," she says, "and you never have to look for a parking space." Oh, and by the way, knowing the future does not mean you can alter it in any appreciable way.

Bee is not happy with what she hears, and she definitely does not want to turn into the unkempt, chain-smoking, cookie-chomping, eyeglass-wearing older version of herself who has been telling her all of this stuff. She is determined to avoid stepping into the future that is in store for her. Much of the enjoyment of the play comes from watching Bee's stumbling and desperate efforts at changing even the slightest thing, to no avail. With knowing looks, the older woman obligingly clicks the remote. Time moves backward or forward, and Bee strives to make a difference. But whether it involves her relationship with Jay or, after they have split, a later one with their younger Latino gardener JJ (Juan Castano), the outcome remains fixed.

What's most interesting, existentially speaking, is that neither Bruce Norris the playwright nor Bee-from-the-future is arguing on behalf of a theocentric view of the universe or of predestination. Instead, it's more along these lines: While we can change our behavior to a certain extent, perhaps even make things a little "nicer" (as Bee puts it), in the grand scheme of things, what will be will be. The visitor is not omniscient, nor is she predicting anything; she is merely describing things as she has seen them and as Bee inevitably will live them.

Norris, a writer who frequently shifts gears between acts in his plays, is not forcing us to accept this "bisecting time" interpretation of events. Instead, he offers an alternative hypothesis in Act II, a more realistic, if more unsettling, possibility—that there is an underlying neurological cause for Bee's experiences. This version of things in the play's second half, in which Ms. Gillette appears as a doctor and, later, as JJ's Spanish-speaking "Abuelita," is far more disturbing that the one we have been living with up to now. There is no science fiction here, only science and the possibility of glioblastoma, the same aggressive brain cancer that Sen. John McCain is currently battling. All may be a product of Bee's deteriorating and hallucination-producing mind. Choose your own ending.

The performance of the play is dependent on some exquisite timing by the cast and crew. There are quick set changes and scenes that are repeated verbatim as Bee attempts to alter outcomes. Much credit must go for the coordination among the intersection of Rachel Hauck's scenic design, Kenneth Posner's lighting design, and Matt Tierney's sound design, as well as to Michael Greif's direction, which keeps things flowing along. In truth, the characters take a back seat to the unpacking of the story, and the men, in particular, serve mostly as plot devices. But Celia Keenan-Bolger and, especially, Anita Gillette (in all three of her distinct roles) do a fine job in bringing to life the playwright's sometimes nihilistic, sometimes quirkily funny ideas about our insignificant place in the universe. If you've ever wondered what it would be like if you could foretell your future, A Parallelogram probably will get you to set aside that thought and embrace life with all of its unpredictability.

A Parallelogram
Through August 20
Second Stage Theatre/Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets and current performance schedule: Second Stage Theatre

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