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Theatre in Review: A Parallelogram (Second Stage)

Celia Keenan-Bolger, Anita Gillette. Photo: Joan Marcus

In plays like Clybourne Park, Domesticated, and The Qualms, Bruce Norris delighted in breaching social norms, putting in his characters' mouths words that would normally be unsayable in polite company. A Parallelogram is, I suppose, a more decorous play -- the dialogue doesn't induce gasps from the audience -- but do not confuse this with lack of ambition. This time out, the playwright has set out to bend the laws of physics to his own bleak purposes.

This desire is evident in the premise of this tricky, games-playing work, a kind of black comedy/thriller with an existential outcry buried in its chilly heart: It posits that Celia Keenan-Bolger and Anita Gillette are portraying the same woman -- respectively known as Bee and Bee 2 -- at different stages of her life, and, somehow, as the lights come up, they are occupying the same space. Even if the Bees share the same DNA, they present quite a contrast: Keenan-Bolger, lithe, toned, and thoroughly put-together, assiduously playing a game of solitaire and ignoring the mind-numbing drone of her garrulous, patronizing boyfriend, posed against Gillette, blowsy in an enormous sweater and baggy pants, curled up in a comfy chair downstage left, devouring Oreos while looking on. Bee 2 is hardly a disinterested observer, however: Every so often, she pulls out a kind of remote control and freezes, rewinds, or fast-forwards the action.

Even more confounding, the two Bees can converse with each other, their main topic of conversation being the difficulty of changing the future. Bee, looking for a reason to hope, brings up the idea of the ripple effect: "If I change one thing, then a whole sequence of other things changes." "Yeah. Doesn't really work like that," Bee 2 says, conclusively.

How can this be happening, you ask? Norris, gingerly dipping a toe into the waters of quantum mechanics, has Bee 2 offer an explanation -- apparently, all time frames exist on the same plane, very occasionally intersecting with each other -- but the playwright is no Tom Stoppard, and A Parallelogram is not a cram course in abstruse scientific matters. (It's never clear how Bee 2 can control the action as if watching a video.) This highly singular situation is merely a setup, affording the playwright room to explore his favorite themes: the warring tugs of freedom and commitment, the transitory nature of passion (which, all too often, is mistaken for love), and the search for meaning in a world seemingly governed by chaos.

"If you knew in advance exactly what was going to happen in your life, and how everything was going to turn out, and if you knew you couldn't do anything to change it, would you still want to go on with your life?" This question plagues Bee, especially since her older self has delivered the news that, decades on, she will survive a devastating global tragedy that severely reduces the world's population. Bee is particularly bemused by the fact that Bee 2 is so blasé about it all; in fact, she says, the world turns out to be a much better place after being denuded of its people. Where, Bee wonders, did her capacity for love go?

As this unnerving discussion takes place, her boyfriend, Jay, is alternately lecturing Bee about her supposed flaws and taking phone calls in which he is trying to manage a family crisis involving his children and their mother, his ex-wife, who has taken to her bed with a bottle of chardonnay. In his spare moments, he struggles with the fact that Bee is drifting out of his grasp. The reasons are many: guilt over Jay's broken marriage, a health crisis, a trip to the Caribbean that was less a holiday than an eye-opening discovery of Third World poverty. Also, it's becoming evident to Bee that Jay is a nag and a bore, entirely in thrall to the sound of his own voice. His protestations of love ring hollow: After all, didn't he once tell his ex-wife he loved her? If he really loves his children, why isn't he with them all the time? And, of course, learning that her life is barreling toward global calamity is not likely to improve a girl's already-bad day.

Having established this Twilight Zone-ready premise, Norris starts throwing curveballs, introducing the possibility that Bee may suffer from mental illness, or that Bee 2 may be a hallucination induced by an organic ailment. Another, equally crucial, question: If Bee hadn't come into contact with the (real or imagined) Bee 2, would she suddenly be dressing like her older self, sneaking cigarettes, and devouring cookies? And would she be making such self-destructive life choices?

The main trick of A Parallelogram is to keep Bee carefully poised on a knife edge between sanity and madness while forcing her to consider whether her life has any real point. Of course, Norris stacks the deck, burdening Bee with all sorts of woes, including a meaningless job as regional manager for Rite-Aid, while depriving her of family and friends, not to mention any interest in politics, the arts, or doing good. Even so, he argues his case so strongly -- and he boxes in his heroine so exquisitely -- that it's easy to become engaged with Bee and her profoundly disturbing dilemma. If her perceptions are correct, disaster looms. If not, she's crazy, or possibly something worse. As in real life, nobody is getting out of this scenario alive.

A Parallelogram benefits enormously from Michael Greif's deft direction and a cast skilled in the art of walking the tightrope on which their author has placed them. Even when playing a woman who is depressed and quite possibly out of her mind, Keenan-Bolger retains an enormous charm. Watching her frantically trying to puzzle out the truth of her situation, it's impossible not to be engaged. Jay is a minefield of a role -- how to capture his all-encompassing self-absorption without making him unbearable? -- but Stephen Kunken finds every bit of humor in the character's cataract-like rants of aggrievement and self-justification. The always-delightful Anita Gillette makes Bee 2 into a remarkably sunny messenger of doom, wiping away Bee's hopes with a single "Naaah." She also makes priceless appearances as Bee 2 disguised as a doctor -- mercilessly using the fact that Jay can't see or hear her to drive Bee into gales of derisive laughter -- and as an elderly Latina lady. All told, this is a mini tour de force. Juan Castano does well with the rather smaller role of the Latino yard worker who becomes Jay's rival for Bee's affections.

Rachel Hauck's set, depicting Bee and Jay's bland, featureless bedroom -- the very expression of the crushing banality of their lives -- executes a lightning-fast transition to a hospital room and, later, manages to get re-dressed in about fifteen seconds -- a tribute to the crack crew at Second Stage. Kenneth Posner's lighting creates distinct looks for each of the play's states of reality; he also uses a set of LED blinders hidden in the proscenium to good effect during the rewind moments. Matt Tierney's sound design is notable for the many whooshes and beeps he creates to accompany the latter lighting cues. Jeff Mahshie's costumes highlight the differences between Bee and Bee 2, then subtly merge their looks to underline the connection between them.

Not everyone will warm up to Norris' heartlessly analytical dramaturgy -- even with its inflections of wit -- and you could make a case that the playwright is behaving rather abusively toward his heroine. But there's a tonic quality to his pessimism, with its implicit message that one had better get busy with the business of living since God only knows what is coming around the corner. Theatregoers are likely to leave A Parallelogram grateful that the laws of physics don't allow them the chance to meet up with their older selves. Whatever the future holds, it may be better not to know. -- David Barbour

(2 August 2017)

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