Stephen Kunken, Juan Castano, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Anita Gilette in ‘A Parallelogram.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Geometry-challenged theatergoers shouldn’t be put off by the title of Bruce Norris’s (Clybourne Park) existential comedy, A Parallelogram, now at the Second Stage seven years after its Chicago debut. Norris uses the word as a metaphor to explain the time-space continuum that forms his play’s substructure, the premise being that strands of time running parallel to one another will, because space is curved, also intersect: past, present, and future are all present in the same moment. Or something like that.
Bee (Celia Keenan-Bolger), a regional Rite-Aid manager in her thirties, is anxiously preoccupied (when she’s not playing solitaire) with a big question: what would people do if they knew what the future held in store but were unable to do anything about it? “Would you still want to go on with your life?” she asks her live-in boyfriend, Jay (Stephen Kunken), a married man who’s left his wife and kids to occupy Bee’s hive.
A Parallelogram, which stretches this question out for two hours and 15 minutes, is a whimsical, black comedy mingling high thoughts with middle and low humor involving the adulterous relationship between the self-involved Bee and the obnoxious Stephen as mediated by the presence of Bee 2 (Anita Gillette). She’s Bee’s older, fatter, chain-smoking, Oreo-snacking, frowzy future self, a semi-narrator who speaks as much to us as to her younger counterpart.
Bee 2 is seen only by Bee 1, although she sometimes can be seen by others, as when she’s visible as an oncologist (Bee 3), and then as the abuelita (Bee 4) of JJ (Juan Castano), the handsome, young Latino who cuts the grass outside Bee and Stephen’s condo. Bee, in a twist only a playwright could love, takes up with him after dumping Jay.
Bee 2 can control time with a battery-operated, TV remote-like device; when Bee 1 wants to see if she can change the outcome of events by rewinding them, Bee 2 needs only to click for a scene—introduced with striking son et lumiére—to be redone, not unlike what happens in Adam Sandler’s movie Click.
Bees aren’t the only things in Norris’s bonnet; birds (a caged parrot figures in the action) also perch on it, including the news that a virus caused by a tropical bird’s saliva will wipe out mankind. That’s something all the remotes in the world will be unable to prevent.
Bee 2’s oncologist turn is prompted by the revelation that Bee has brain cancer, hinting that what we’re seeing is actually her mind playing tricks. This problem is never satisfactorily resolved and only serves to open a can of worms (but not for the parrot). But Bee 2’s shifting back and forth between the doctor and herself offers her a chance to insult Stephen when he doesn’t hear her, garnering big laughs; the biggest, though, is reserved for a joke about the president.
Why the insignificant Bee (and nobody else) is visited by her future avatar isn’t answered, nor do we know why Bee 2 knows so much about quantum mechanics; many other questions could be raised about various contrivances, but Norris’s concern is less with logical plotting than with establishing a basis on which to bat around ideas inspired by his time-bending conceit. Bee 2, provocatively, gets to interrogate conventional attitudes on such matters, especially when she dismisses our proclivity for saying how mankind will “never forget” catastrophes like the Holocaust or 9/11. Remember the Alamo?
Under Michael Greif’s (Dear Evan Hansen) upbeat direction, the production is engaging, getting the most out of Norris’s vividly actable dialogue, with Gillette’s razor-sharp delivery of cynical observations leading the way. Keenan-Bolger and Kunken aren’t afraid to make their characters unlikable and Castano, speaking both English and Spanish, gets good mileage from a stereotyped role.
Rachel Hauck’s condo and hospital sets are blandly unadorned but she pulls off a startling coup de théâtre when, before our eyes, one set changes instantly to the other and then, later, back again. Greatly aiding and abetting the sci-fi elements are the lighting design of Kenneth Posner, especially the digital effects on the proscenium, and the spot-on sounds of Matt Tierney.
Comedy is often the best way to make an audience think about serious issues, even philosophical ones. A Parallelogram, however, is neither as funny nor as intellectually stimulating as I had hoped. If only I had that remote.
Second Stage Theater/Tony Kiser Theater
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through August 20
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).