Los Angeles Theater Review: A PARALLELOGRAM (Mark Taper Forum)

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by Tony Frankel on July 24, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE SHAPE OF THINGS

After Bruce Norris’s A Parallelogram at the Mark Taper Forum, I overheard a few audience members describe the play as “cute.” For all of the play’s political incorrectness, ramblings about physics, a future plague, and fairly unlikeable (and unknowable) characters, it appears that the playwright was going for provocative Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of "A Parallelogram" at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.philosophy, but the evening ends up as unchallenging fluff. Fun, perhaps. Diverting, perhaps. But “cute?” Where does that come from?

One, the possibly made-up parallelogram-shaped device belonging to the main character, a woman named Bee. This apparatus looks like a TV remote control, but it has the power to move Bee back and forth through time. This device comes courtesy of “cute” number two: An older woman, Bee 2, who smokes in a chair that is clearly not a part of Bee’s modest ground-floor condo. Bee 2 explains that all events, past and future, co-exist in the same universe and that time moves across the universe in parallel lines in a way that allows them to intersect. Or something like that.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of "A Parallelogram" at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.Combining elements of Groundhog Day, Alan Ayckbourn, The Butterfly Effect, Theater of the Absurd, and Arcadia, this fast and flippant drama centers on Bee, who is Norris’ casebook study in the very un-absolute relativity of hopes and fears. Mostly confined to her bed while playing solitaire, this young woman cohabits with middle-aged boyfriend Jay, who’s estranged from his unseen ex-wife Marcie and their kids (Jay is oblivious to the older Bee 2, but he can smell her residual smoke). The remaining normal character is the humble Guatemalan gardener, JJ, who mows outside the bedroom door and will inevitably factor into Bee’s future. (That the current beau is Jay and the next is JJ is Norris’ not-so-sly way of saying that we are condemned to repeat our mistakes.)

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of "A Parallelogram" at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.Bee 2 is either an illusion of how Bee sees herself in the future, a figment of her present, or neither. Perhaps the older Bee is the reality, and she is flipping through her fragmented memory for clues of how she got where she is. Norris drops hints of which reality is the most accurate, but in the end it doesn’t matter. All we know is that when Bee 2 clicks on that remote, and the scene is magically moved back five minutes so Bee can attempt to change the future, it’s positively engaging.

This extraordinarily titillating premise invites ponderings from the audience: What if we knew what was going to happen to us, yet couldn’t do anything to stop it? Is free will just an illusion fostered by our ignorance of the future? Are our lives on a time loop in which we can leap around and make strategic alterations? Is innocence – the freedom from guilt over things we can’t prevent – really just the result of not knowing what’s next? These admittedly fascinating questions are more absorbing than the action, such as it isn’t, in this puzzle play which premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre two years ago.

Though A Parallelogram has nothing to do with quadrilateral shapes, it is nonetheless rather diagrammatic. The philosophical question is raised clearly enough, but there’s not much reason to care about how the answer might affect the Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of "A Parallelogram" at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.lives of the characters. Bee, played by the captivating Marin Ireland (LaBute’s reasons to be pretty), is near-hopeless and disengaged pretty much at the same level throughout the play. Except for a few moments of panic or excitement, her failure to take much of a journey makes the character ultimately tedious. Jay is generally angry and self-absorbed much of the time, but Tom Irwin is a master of this self-pitying and impatient Neil Simon-esque character who has trouble understanding women (it’s enough for this stereotypically regular guy to watch football games as a distraction from ugly realities). He’s all bark but ultimately no bite, even though (as is reinforced in one of the play’s more amusing segments) he’s an asshole throughout and that ultimately wears thin as well. Bee and Jay exist only to illustrate Norris’ theories and to provide vehicles for his biting (and often genuinely funny) wit.

Carlo Albán (Intríngulis) manages to be empathetic in the entirely thankless role of JJ the lawn boy, who simplistically just wants to be happy, and whose concern for the future is undoubtedly in locating the next beer. The droll and puckish Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of "A Parallelogram" at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.Marylouise Burke (Good People at the Geffen) reprises her Steppenwolf performance as the hive of older Bees (Bee 3 is also a doctor and Bee 4 is also JJ’s granny, “abuelita”). Burke is loveable and sassy, the type of Jewish Mother who can get away with verbal insults because coming from someone of her age they become cute. Burke loses dialogue when she turns upstage, but she is casting perfection, especially when she is amusingly detached from the couple’s drama (just before a spat between Bee and Jay, she says “I remember this part,” anticipating the moment as if it were from a favorite movie).

Norris’ hypothesis of time travel is buttressed by Todd Rosenthal’s ingenious set, in which a plain contemporary condominium transforms into a hospital room, then back to the condo, now slightly dilapidated at a later time. James F. Ingalls’ lights create sharply-focused playing areas, and the time-shifting moments are enhanced Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of "A Parallelogram" at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.by his strobe effects and Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen’s sci-fi sound. Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County), who developed and directed Parallelogram at Steppenwolf, gives the show as much shape as the script allows.

Burke’s performance is so effective, and the set changes so eye-popping, that the audience scarcely has time to worry that not a whole lot is being said here in this fairly entertaining play. I fear that Norris may quickly be replacing Terence McNally as America’s Chinese Food Playwright: You enjoy it at the moment, but long for something more substantial shortly thereafter. As soon as A Parallelogram is over, the playwriting tricks wear off and we’re left with a thuddingly obvious point: Whatever happens, we have to get on with our lives and hope for the – well, if not the best – then the not too tragic. What can’t be cured must be endured.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of "A Parallelogram" at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.If life is largely about the choices we make, and if we struggle to make the right (or at least reasonably smart) ones, is it comforting or disturbing to be told those choices don’t matter as much as we believe they do? It’s a good question, but Norris (who veers towards predestination), doesn’t make an especially great case for it. For a far more effective playgoing experience which tackles nearly identical subject matter, see Sharr White’s The Other Place when it comes your way. In the meantime, you will learn in A Parallelogram that a genocide–like plague spread by birds is coming. You can’t change the future, just suck up to the hysterectomies and depression and loneliness. Anxiety can fuck with your mental capabilities, and to deal with the pressures, you’re going to smoke, get emphysema and die. Now, isn’t that “cute?”

photos by Craig Schwartz

A Parallelogram
Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum
ends on August 18, 2013
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org/

{ 5 comments }

John Topping July 24, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Didn’t you answer your own question when you said, “Burke is loveable and sassy, the type of Jewish Mother who can get away with verbal insults because coming from someone of her age they become cute.”?

John Topping July 24, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Also, you didn’t explain the play’s “political incorrectness.” I assume it’s all centered around Carlo Albán’s character. Or did you mean something else?

Tony Frankel July 24, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Thank you, Mr. Topping. Yes, the putdowns about JJ and also some subtle misogynistic comments from Jay.

By the way, what did you think of the show?

John Topping August 1, 2013 at 6:50 pm

I don’t recall the misogyny. I guess I just assumed it was part of Jay’s character. Then again, Bee would be an awfully exasperating girlfriend to have.

I should have guessed, before the play started, that the sole Latino character was going to be a yard worker. But since that’s such a large part of our reality, one feels one has to let it slide. When he’s later called a moron — coupled with the delighted response from the audience — there’s suddenly less willingness to cut Mr. Norris some slack.

Of the three plays I’ve seen by Bruce Norris (the others being THE PAIN AND THE ITCH and CLYBOURNE PARK), this was definitely the least of them. It’s interesting and entertaining but far from must-see theater. Unfortunately, it’s also undoubtedly the best show currently running in Los Angeles.

Thom Karlsen August 13, 2013 at 8:40 am

Loved your review, Tony!

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