The press material on Bruce Norris’ latest play nutshells the story this way:
If you knew in advance exactly what was going to happen in your life, and how everything was going to turn out, and … you couldn’t do anything to change it, would you still want to go on …? That is the question facing Bee who, much to Jay’s confusion, can click through different moments in her life with the touch of a remote control. Past, present and future collide in this sharp existential comedy that questions whether we can make peace with those things we don’t have the power to change.
The play’s title suggests order and symmetry, balance and structure. The “gram” part even whispers message if you stretch gram to telegram.
The play itself offers a great pile of possibility. One might say the play gives you a meditation on the meaning of life.
One might also say the play gives you a frustrating meander of indecision about the meaning of life.
There is such a muddle of “message” that one is at once intrigued and unsatisfied. It is a great deal to ask anyone — priest or prophet — much less playwright — to tell you the meaning of life. But, when a playwright suggests he can, he must at least decide what he thinks. He doesn’t have to be right on a cosmic scale, but, he must come to a decision. Norris seems as much at sea as the rest of us on this essential question.
A great deal goes right in A Parallelogram. You would expect the work of such an accomplished playwright (Norris has Oliviers, Tonys, even a Pulitzer on his shelf), to be challenging and diverting; and it is. I have been thinking about and talking about A Parallelogram for days.
Director Michael Greif’s artful and experienced sensibility is evident in the smooth, sleigh-of-hand misdirections — such as when some characters — living on one plane — hear one another while others — on another plane — do not.
The actors bring talent and polish. Anita Gillette is no stranger to scene-stealing, and here she plays several characters written to do just that. She is our narrator — our guide and Bee’s — through the muddled landscape of hallucination vs. stark reality. Norris gives her several speeches on aging and naiveté that land well.
Celia Keenan-Bolger plays Bee, who struggles with the aforementioned existential questions. Keenan-Bolger plays her rather bloodlessly; we never see any passion for the men she beds, nor tenderness toward her other selves. Her struggle is apparently cerebral.
Stephen Kunken plays Jay, the boyfriend who’s left his wife and children for Bee. Jay is collateral damage, battered by the women in the play, on stage and off. In his first line he wonders: “How do I always wind up playing the bad guy?” Kunken never gets an answer, but he does get at least one hilariously revelatory speech.
Juan Castano is JJ — the gorgeous-if-dim, young yard guy who displaces Jay in Bee’s affection. His job is to underscore the absurdity of Jay’s outrage and Bee’s distain and he does that with small comic moments as he traverses the action more than engages in it.
Still, with all these gifts of talent and experience, A Parallelogram falls short.
During the interval my guest and I, escaped from the refrigerated Tony Kiser Theater to the more temperate, if fetid, embrace of West 43rd Street. We struggled to understand — was this play all about “nobody wants to know the truth?” or “life is pointless because we all die,” or “…it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” We were still in the dark, so, we went back in.
By Act 2 much of what had been entertaining, even winning — certainly novel — in Act 1 had worn quite thin. The device of shocking lights to signal a time warp looked clever the first seven to ten times. The rerunning of dialogue occasioned by that time warp was nifty at first, but quickly became tedious. And while a playwright might argue the tedium of human life is showcased here — and the last lines of the play do underscore this notion — I’d argue it’s not that we don’t get it so much as it’s no longer interesting.
A play needs more than a clown car of notions and a three ring circus of ambiguity, even if all that tickles your imagination and spurs your conversation. In A Parallelogram are we seeing a visionary young woman who’s perception allows us to entertain remarkable possibilities? Or, are we visiting the distorted world-view generated by her brain tumor? Intriguing to consider, but can you give the audience a hint?
Bee 2 (Anita Gillette), describing a series of what appear to be unconnected deaths says at one point:
But of course, you never really see the connection until it’s too late.
The line jumps off the stage — is THIS what the whole evening is about? And, if so, too late for what?
A Parallelogram — Written by Bruce Norris; directed by Michael Greif
WITH: Juan Castano (JJ), Anita Gillette (Bee2/Bee3/Bee4), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Bee) and Stephen Kunken (Jay).
Designed by Rachel Hauck, costumes by Jeff Mahshie, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, sound design by Matt Tierney, animal training by William Berloni. At Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St. Manhattan through August 20th. Runtime 2 hrs. and 15 min. with one intermission.