'A Parallelogram': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Celia Keenan-Bolger (left) and Anita Gillette in 'A Parallelogram'
Not nearly as profound as it pretends to be.
8/20/2017

A woman discovers she has the ability to change time in this new dark comedy by Bruce Norris, the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning author of 'Clybourne Park.'

If you think grim subjects like the pointlessness of human existence and our inability to control our own destinies seem like ripe prospects for humor, then this new play by Bruce Norris is for you. Owing debts to Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, with a smidgen of Woody Allen thrown into the mix, A Parallelogram is the sort of existential absurdist comedy designed to be thought-provoking. But more often than not it seems to be spinning its own wheels. To its credit, the play appears to acknowledge this, with one character breaking the fourth wall about a quarter of the way through to tell the audience, “Thirty-one minutes of your life you’re never gonna get back.”

The 2010 work — now receiving its New York premiere at Second Stage Theater after previous productions at Chicago’s Steppenwolf and Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum — features four characters. Or six, depending on your interpretation of what’s going on. They are the thirtysomething Bee (Celia Keenan-Bolger), a Rite-Aid regional manager whose relationship with Jay (Stephen Kunken), who left his wife and children for her, shows definite strain. Also on hand is JJ (Juan Castano), their hunky Latino lawn man, and Bee 2 (Anita Gillette), a much older version of Bee who has the power to rewind and fast-forward time via a battery-powered remote control. Finally, there’s Bee 3 and Bee 4, also played by Gillette, but revealing their identities is something of a spoiler, or would be if the convoluted plot machinations evoked more interest.

Norris, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for his 2010 play Clybourne Park, specializes in dark comedies featuring unlikable people doing unpleasant things. That’s certainly true of this effort showcasing his trademark dark wit, such as the elderly Bee’s observation about old age: “Most of the time it’s horrible, but at least you learn not to pay attention so much.”

Unfortunately, A Parallelogram doesn’t live up to its sharpest moments. Whatever messages Norris is trying to impart are muddled at best and depressing at worst. The shifting perspectives — the plot takes extreme detours in the second act — add up to little more than clever narrative tricks. And one possible explanation offered for the presence of so many Bees feels trite, as if the playwright, once he had come up with his imaginative conceit, decided to take the easy way out. Not that the central idea is particularly original, since a similar concept formed the basis of Adam Sandler’s 2006 film comedy, Click.

The play also feels needlessly dragged out. Clocking in at two-and-a-quarter hours, much of its action is consumed with increasingly tired running gags about such things as Jay’s seeming inability to pay the lawn man after a day’s work and the unexpected benefits of a future plague that wipes out much of the world’s population.

Michael Greif’s inventive staging does ample justice to the work’s metaphysical conceits, from the impressive sound and lighting effects signifying time changes to Rachel Hauck’s superb set, which miraculously transforms itself faster than actors doing a costume change. The performers do solid work, but Keenan-Bolger and Kunken are hamstrung by their characters’ shrillness and Castano by his character’s stereotypical aspects. The saving grace is Gillette, whose theater credits go back more than a half-century. With her sardonic Bee 2, who has little patience for her younger version’s idealism, and the surprising incarnations that follow, the veteran actress provides a hilarious rebuttal to any hopeful thoughts you may have about the future.

Venue: Second Stage Theater, New York
Cast: Juan Castano, Anita Gillette, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Stephen Kunken
Playwright: Bruce Norris
Director: Michael Greif
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Matt Tierney
Presented by Second Stage Theater

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