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Fifth of July

A Parallelogram

Bruce Norris' engaging new play about a futuristic society is ultimately unsatisfying.

By Chicago
Kate Arrington and Marylouise Burke in A Parallelogram
(© Michael Brosilow)
Kate Arrington and Marylouise Burke in A Parallelogram
(© Michael Brosilow)
A Parallelogram, Bruce Norris' engaging if frustrating new play getting its world premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is sharply acted by a four-person cast and directed by Tony Award winner Anna D. Shapiro. But the playwright simply doesn't give these talented people enough to work with to create a truly satisfying experience.

Bee (Kate Arrington) is in her early 30s, attractive, middle class, and has no past, at least none conveyed to us. As the play begins, Bee is six months into a relationship with the slightly older Jay (the thoroughly convincing Tom Irwin), who left his wife and two kids to live with her. But, recently, Bee has undergone a hysterectomy and she and Jay have had a disastrous vacation in a Third World country.

While out shopping, Bee has met an older, fatter, slovenly, cigarette-smoking, cookie-eating version of herself, Bee 2 (Marylouise Burke, who has excellent comic instincts), who is seen and heard only by Bee -- and who matter-of-factly lays out a disastrous future 25 years hence in which a plague kills off most of the earth's population. Bee 2 also tells Bee she will lose Jay very soon. "Why does he leave me?" she asks. "Because you're losing your mind," Bee 2 tells her.

Is Bee 2 a real harbinger of the future? And if Bee 2 is real, is she correct when she tells still-hopeful Bee that changing the present will not alter the future? To prove the point Bee 2 (and, later, Bee herself) uses a TV remote control to repeat moments just played out. Sure enough, even when Bee changes what she says or does, the outcome remains the same. As Bee 2 explains, all actions and beings exist in parallel lines; but as the earth is curved, parallel lines running in different directions intersect forming parallelograms in which past, present, and future can touch each other.

The play's three locations are given an austere and contemporary treatment by designer Todd Rosenthal, who springs some revolving and trap-door surprises on the audience in order to provide instant set changes.

But ultimately, Norris makes Bee a nearly-passive heroine who does nothing substantial to control her own destiny. In fact, Bee is so self-absorbed that she's barely concerned about the dire predictions Bee 2 has made. Norris also offers an ethnic-based conflict between Jay and Bee's subsequent lover JJ, a Latino gardener (Tim Bickel), but the subplot only steals focus without adding anything.

By the play's end, it's finally clear that Norris has created a work in the absurdist tradition, and presented us with an uncaring, irrational and arbitrary universe in which life has no meaning. Unfortunately, the play doesn't mean enough to us either.


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