Bee, the heroine of Bruce Norris’s new play, A Parallelogram, is in the midst of a bout of depression. She sits on her bed playing solitaire. Perhaps it’s because she and her boyfriend, Jay, have recently returned from a vacation on a tropical island, where she saw grinding poverty. Or perhaps because, on returning from their trip, she found that the pet parrot she had for 17 years had died from her own negligence (its empty cage sits in the bedroom). Perhaps it’s the hysterectomy that she recently had. Or could it possibly be because her future self, Bee 2, has materialized to reveal the future to her in all its futility?
It’s the kind of sci-fi premise from which Alan Ayckbourn might fashion a deft, sharp comedy (e.g., Communicating Doors, Comic Potential), but Norris has come up with a puzzling, scattered meditation on determinism and free will that never coalesces satisfyingly. On the plus side, he has borrowed a page from David Ives’s one-act Sure Thing, since Bee 2 carries a remote control that can rewind the action—still a clever conceit.
On the other hand, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Bee has little to do but embody quiet desperation, looking blank and frustrated—in no small part because at this pass Stephen Kunken’s Jay is a rigid jerk who is absorbed with his children and football games on television. Beyond that, Jay ignores the Hispanic man who is mowing the lawn, and when it comes time to pay the worker—his name is JJ—he insists that JJ walk to the front of the apartment to collect, because the sliding doors are in their bedroom. Jay then proceeds to ignore the sound of the doorbell. Jay’s behavior marks him as a playwright’s construct; nothing about it rings true.
More important is the lack of an explanation as to how, when or why Bee 2 has come into Bee’s life. At least Michael Greif’s production has the estimable Anita Gillette as the frumpy future Bee (she appears in two more incarnations); Gillette, best known as a singer, puts her sense of timing and emotion to expert use, showing a comic flair in her ennui or shuffling off her lines with dry skepticism. (Costume designer Jeff Mahshie has done his work well; it’s apparent soon into the play that the clothing and hairstyles of Gillette and Keenan-Bolger mark them as the same person at different ages.) Gillette’s Bee also gets to stop the action with that remote control and address the audience.
Whether Bee’s problem is that she knows the future and it has ruined her perspective is unclear: “You’re perfectly fine and life goes on and you actually feel kind of embarrassed for making such a big deal about it in the first place, and you think … I need to remember this moment and learn from it and grow as a person,” she explains to JJ. “But then you just forget the whole thing and you’re totally fine? … Nobody remembers. A hundred years from now you think people are gonna remember you?” Or perhaps it has to do with the realization that love is not permanent. When Jay says he loves her, she answers: “But you were also in love with Marcie … And then you weren’t anymore … And then you left her.” She has already learned, of course, that Jay is going to leave her.
Complicating the story, which includes a cancer diagnosis, a hysterectomy and an affair with JJ (Juan Castano), there is the revelation from Bee 2 that a widespread plague is going to decimate mankind, passed by a tropical bird bite. Is it the bite from the parrot that has just died? Or is it a second parrot, one that Bee gave to Jay’s daughter, that bit him? Or perhaps the finch that Jay and Bee found sitting inside the sugar bowl in their tropical vacation spot? It’s one of Norris’s better ideas to offer these possibilities without settling on one, since it helps impart Bee’s sense of confusion and worry.
Still, although there are several interesting ideas at play, the whole leaves one stymied. Is Norris satirizing the Western tendency to try to solve the problems of the world? Or is it the pessimism that those insurmountable problems cause among caring people?
One must depend on the performances for satisfaction. Keenan-Bolger does her best, but Bee is a cipher. Kunken is suitably irritating and self-absorbed, although he finds moments of sympathy for Jay. Juan Castano as JJ, in spite of an awkward, adopted Hispanic accent, plays the decent, struggling immigrant with honesty and passion.
But it’s Gillette who soars. She handles her reincarnations as a doctor and as JJ’s grandmother, who speaks no English and walks with a rolling oxygen tank, with equal aplomb. When she’s given a monologue about 9/11 that teeters on the edge of tastelessness, she manages to skirt the danger and make one listen closely. She’s the production’s chief asset.
Bruce Norris’s A Parallelogram plays through Aug. 20 at 2nd Stage Theater (305 W. 43rd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call the box office at (212) 246-4422 or visit 2st.com.