As a playwright, Bruce Norris (“The Pain and the Itch,” “The Unmentionables”) has proven himself a purveyor of unpleasant truths. Recent work has satirized the smug self-delusions of the American upper-middle-class, exposing with acidic wit any do-goodisms as ego-driven lies, often tinged with racism. But his well-crafted, highly entertaining and exceptionally thought-provoking newest comedy, “A Parallelogram,” turns out not to be a satire at all. Stripping his characters of their delusions by suggesting in advance that all their efforts turn to crap, Norris expresses more sympathy for humanity’s existential futility than loathing for its common hypocrisy and emerges with his most commercial work to date.
In “A Parallelogram,” a thirtysomething-year-old woman named Bee (Kate Arrington) announces to her divorced boyfriend (Tom Irwin) that she can see the future, having met her older self-to-be in the supermarket. Rather than reflecting who she imagines she’ll become — and, go ahead, you can fill in your own currently perceived future here — future Bee is overweight, smokes cigarettes, watches television most of the time and generally admits that the bird virus that decimates the population a quarter century hence is probably a net positive from her perspective. At least it’ll be a whole lot easier to find a parking space.
And, as her future self — visible to Bee throughout in the form of the ever-quirky Marylouise Burke — insists to Bee for the entire two-hour running time, there is absolutely nothing Bee can do to alter the pathetic trajectory of her life. Bee even gets the opportunity to try, thanks to a magical remote that allows her to rewind key moments in an effort to change them.
It’s not like there’s no free will at all. Instead of saying nothing, Bee can rewind a scene and try to disrupt it by throwing things, and instead of leaving a conversation with truthful unpleasantries, she can be nicer — “Lies are always nicer,” Burke explains. But she’s powerless to change her life because in the grand scheme of the universe, it all happens in an instant.
Sound depressing? Believe it or not, it wouldn’t even be quite accurate to call this a dark comedy. It’s a light comedy on the heaviest of subjects, a relative rarity that Norris has managed to pull off with classy, polished support from director Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”), a stellar cast and a clever set from Todd Rosenthal that changes just enough to also stay the same.
Norris skillfully reveals plenty of reasons, both psychological and physical, to explain Bee’s visions in realistic fashion, and therefore question her reliability. And yet, the lurking thought never dissipates: Just because someone may be hallucinating doesn’t make the lessons learned any less true.
For a show with this many built-in contrivances, “A Parallelogram” manages to stay consistent, never lingering too much on any rationalization and moving with enough comic patter and pace to avoid pretension. And while all sorts of dramatic parallels come to mind — choose your time-travelling favorite — the play retains a genuine, uncompromising clarity of voice that evades the derivative. Norris’s egomaniacal American is still egomaniacal, but in this case even Jay, the white guy who condescends his Latino gardener (Tim Bickel), becomes sympathetic when reduced to a ball of tears by Bee’s fortune-telling.
This is a substantive, funny and even fitfully moving work about humanity’s lack of substance, a meaningful play about meaninglessness. If you so desire, you may convince yourself that seeing it will enrich your life, even if truthfully it will just advance you two more hours into the inevitable future, which would have happened anyway.