A Parallelogram: Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
Marin Ireland and Tom Irwin in "A Parallelogram"
Our inability to intervene in our own lives to effect substantive change forms the despairing web of this intricately spun speculative comedy. 

Pulitzer-winning playwright Bruce Norris ("Clybourne Park") presents an existential riddle about fate in downtown L.A.

Bruce Norris won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for his 2010 riff on A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park, a tough act for any play to follow. So luckily, A Parallelogram, enjoying its West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum downtown, was written and debuted at his Chicago home Steppenwolf Theatre Company before those accolades.

As the existentially adrift protagonist of this lacerating comedy, the stolidly unreflective Bee (Marin Ireland), posits her dilemma to her uncomprehending boyfriend Jay (Tom Irwin). “If you knew in advance exactly… how everything was going to turn out,” she says, “and if you knew you couldn’t do anything to change it, would you still want to go on with your life?” It is, of course, a trick question, propounded by an even dicier riven personality.

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Bee has access to divining the fates through her ability to encounter, across time, her future elderly alter ego “Bee 2” (and later, “3” and “4”) (Marylouise Burke), who reluctantly is importuned to give Bee the lowdown on the destiny of every character in the play as well as the ability, via a battery-operated remote control, to demonstrate to her the futility of any effort to alter the course of incidents whether trivial or life-altering.

Norris has a knack for crisp dialogue with the torturous bite of those desirous to please, and this somewhat hackneyed Twilight Zone-Groundhog Day premise crackles, at least at first, with a cheekiness splendidly executed with expert timing by alert actors and drilled precision from director Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County) on a killer set by Todd Rosenthal. But the breeziness can’t sustain itself because beneath the whimsy festers inconsolable pain and inevitable disconnection.

Superficially a bold contrast to the heightened naturalism of Clybourne Park, A Parallelogram startlingly echoes many of the distinctive characteristics of the earlier work. Both invoke a split focus between an experience suggestive of an alternate reality on the one hand, and on the other, the consequences of long-ago behaviors on future outcomes. Clybourne Park allocated its narrative to separate acts 50 years apart.

Here, the contradicting narratives zipping back and forth comprise the ongoing action. Both pieces calculatedly cultivate bourgeois sympathies only to subvert their complacency with a pointed indictment of the efficacy of good intentions. Bee ultimately comes to the irrefutable conclusion that complete emotional dishonesty is the key to her overweening goal of being considered a “nice” person.

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However, hulking beneath the drollery of the conceit, Bee’s fantasy of powerlessness bespeaks a profound passivity, and as the plot takes a more clinical turn at the first act curtain, Norris’ initially inventive variations grow increasingly repetitive, as mired in the limitations of its fancy as Bee’s own sense of a self entirely defined and realized by its avoidance of any meaningful connection to others, to the world or, most piercingly, to her own life.

This most interesting theme does not progress much through the second act, as there is little space for any ideas to develop when the point of the story remains essentially that any growth has been willfully foreclosed. Bee ultimately does make a choice: what has become hard to fathom any longer is what difference it can possibly make. 

Venue: Mark Taper Forum at The Music Center, Los Angeles (runs through August 18)

Cast: Marin Ireland, Marylouise Burke, Tom Irwin, Carlo Albán

Director: Anna D. Shapiro

Playwright: Bruce Norris

Set designer: Todd Rosenthal

Lighting designer: James F. Ingalls

Sound designers: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen

Costume designer: Alex Jaeger

Presented by Center Theatre Group