Theater archives

Bruce Norris Has a Gloomy Message From the Future


Imagine being confronted by a significantly older version of yourself: a grayed, out-of-shape, frowsy-looking you who obviously has not aged gracefully. Somehow this elder self materializes in the here and now of your bedroom to let you know that your future life won’t turn out so wonderfully — and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. The lone bit of good news is that at least you will survive, some years hence, a bizarre worldwide plague destined to wipe out billions of others. And the less crowded world will be a nicer place for the loss.

Such are the bleak particulars of A Parallelogram, a play that Bruce Norris reportedly wrote around the same time he composed Clybourne Park, which nabbed him the Pulitzer Prize for 2011. (In the dystopia of 2017, the premise suggests a possible outline for an upcoming episode of Black Mirror.) Originally produced by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2010, A Parallelogram makes its Manhattan debut at Second Stage Theater, where bright performances and a smartly designed production (neatly staged by Michael Greif) mitigate somewhat the sorrowful essence of Norris’s seriocomic tale. As the show progresses, it is possible that you will be able to overlook the not-altogether-credible sci-fi mechanics of the play to more pleasurably focus upon the characters. Celia Keenan-Bolger charms in the leading role of Bee, who learns about her dubious fate from the matter-of-fact elderly Bee (Anita Gillette, who makes for a slyly beguiling presence).

Exactly how this Bee senior pops into her younger self’s present, why she hangs around in different guises for several months, or how she happens to possess a remote-control device that easily shifts time back and forth, are queries that remain perplexing. For enjoyment’s sake, viewers should simply go with the flow of the narrative, which studies the thirtysomething Bee’s dismayed reaction to the news of her inescapable destiny. Part of the second act transpires in a hospital room, since Bee’s visitor from the hereafter is considered by others to be a hallucination possibly caused by brain lesions. Perhaps that’s the case, although Bee2 (as Gillette’s character is identified in the playbill) is sufficiently tangible to sometimes speak directly to the audience: “Ya see, the problem is, people never really want to know the truth,” she observes. “Why should they? I mean, would you?”

While Norris’s message is downbeat, his play is often lively. The dialogue is brisk, and so is Greif’s pacing; the half-dozen-odd Groundhog Day-type repetitions in time are amusing. And the performances overall are persuasive. The wistfulness that Keenan-Bolger typically brings to her roles semi-sweetens Bee’s truculent personality. Gillette, a veteran Broadway actor whom 30 Rock fans will know as Liz Lemon’s dotty mom, adeptly depicts Bee2’s subsequent masquerades as an oncologist and a Central American grandma. Stephen Kunken energizes the proceedings as Bee’s increasingly frustrated jackass of a boyfriend. And Juan Castano is disarmingly low-keyed as a yard worker who drolly theorizes about why birds are probably annoyed by the human race. You ought to listen closely: Later, one of Bee2’s revelations details how our friends in the sky get revenge on humanity in the not-so-distant future.

A Parallelogram
Second Stage Theater
305 West 43rd Street
Through August 20