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Off Broadway Review: Bruce Norris’ ‘A Parallelogram’

With:
Juan Castano, Anita Gillette, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Stephen Kunken.

Didn’t we already see “Groundhog Day” onstage this year?  Or is “A Parallelogram” playwright Bruce Norris’ private little joke? Just kidding. Both shows fiddle around with the concept of the time/space continuum that made physics teachers despair of the junior class. But Norris (who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Clybourne Park”) takes a more determined stab at the existential question that haunts us all:  Is that all there is?

Second Stage Theater does its usual bang-up job on production. Director Michael Greif (“Dear Evan Hansen”) keeps a sharp cast moving at a smart clip through a static text that’s more talk than action — and more thought than talk. Most of the conversation takes place in the bland bedroom of an unmarried couple who are themselves pretty bland.

Stephen Kunken, a journeyman actor so reliable you could set your watch by him, plays Jay, an average kind of guy who’s happy watching football and occasionally venting about the plight of the white man in a changing world that’s more interesting than he is.  Norris has Jay’s voice down pat, and his mild-mannered bitching (at the TV, at the world, at the handyman who doesn’t speak English) is genuinely funny without being mean.

Bee, who’s been sitting on the bed all this time looking cute, if distracted, is played by Celia Keenan-Bolger (“Peter and the Starcatcher”), who finds the chinks in her armored intelligence and the anger in her wit. It’s Bee who gets the talk flowing when she casually asks Jay whether he would want to go on living if he knew the future and realizes that he couldn’t change it.

Bewildered by Bee’s odd query, Jay leaves the bedroom to commune with the football game on TV. That leaves Bee to answer her own question, in the person of Bee 2 (Anita Gillette, still and always a charmer), a spry but elderly woman who has been quietly sitting in the corner all along. Bee 2 turns out to be Bee herself at an older age — which answers part of Bee’s question by the very fact of her existence in a later time frame.

These two actresses adroitly play off one another, which makes it quite fun to observe them bouncing the conversational ball back and forth. But the ball eventually lands in Bee 2’s court, so she uses some gizmo that looks like a TV remote to stop time and replay part of the last scene. Her intention is to prove to her younger self that, whatever changes she manages to make in her life, the outcome will be the same. A broken bottle in one version of reality will find another way to get itself broken in the rewrite. Frustrated, Bee rebelliously keeps on trying. In one iteration, she even hooks up with JJ (Juan Castano), the cute guy who mows the lawn.

The only substantive changes occur when wisps of past or future days intersect in some infinite space. One running gag (or annoyance) is Jay’s irritation with the smell of cigarettes that Bee won’t get around to smoking for years. (Norris and your high school physics teacher could do a better job of explaining the science principle.) But the problem with the play has nothing to do with science, or even scifi versions of time travel.

The problem is that Bee is severely hamstrung by her limited imagination and lack of human compassion.  Just one example: Bee has learned enough about the future from Bee 2 to know that there’s a bloody plague coming down the pike. But her feeble attempts to change the future  revolve entirely around her own narrow, self-serving interests. Will she survive an illness? Will she commit suicide?  Will she really run away with JJ? A better question might be: When the plague comes, will she be zombie food?

Off Broadway Review: Bruce Norris' 'A Parallelogram'

Second Stage Theater / Tony Kiser Theater; 296 seats; $79 top. Opened Aug. 2, 2017. Reviewed Aug. 1. Running time: TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production: A Second Stage Theater production of a pay in two acts by Bruce Norris. Commissioned by Steppenwolf Theater Company.

Creative: Directed by Michael Greif. Sets, Rachel Hauck; costumes, Jeff Mahshie; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Matt Tierney; production stage manager, Jane Grey.

Cast: Juan Castano, Anita Gillette, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Stephen Kunken.

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