[ Note: There is a spoiler alert for this review. ]
Playwright: Bruce Norris. At: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets: 312-335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org/boxoffice; $50-$70. Runs through: Aug. 29
"Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there ..."
Bruce Norris' new play is a Theater of the Absurd cousin of Samuel Beckett's Endgame and Harold Pinter's The Dumbwaiter. Norris has constructed a closed, Godless universe without spiritual essence; an uncaring and unfathomable cosmos in which the future is hopeless and there's no discernible reason for existence, thus rendering life absurd. I don't know if Norris' world view really is so bleak and existential, but his plays tend to go in that direction, making A Parallelogram perhaps an odd choice to conclude a Steppenwolf season devoted to plays that examine faith.
The issue of faith revolves around Bee, an attractive woman living with Jay, at least 20 years older, who has left his wife and kids for her. While out shopping, Bee meets an older, fatter, slovenly version of herself whom only Bee can see and hear. Bee 2 ( the older version ) matter-of-factly lays out a disastrous future 25 years hence in which a plague kills off most of the earth's population. She also tells Bee she soon will lose Jay. "Why does he leave me?" she asks. "Because you're losing your mind," Bee 2 tells her.
Is Bee 2 real? If she 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.
Under Tony Award-winning director Anna D. Shapiro, A Parallelogram is sharply acted, especially by Tom Irwin as Jay, whose convincing throw-away naturalism and brisk cue pick-ups propel the performance, even in quiet moments. As Bee 2, Marylouise Burke has excellent comic instincts, but simply isn't loud enough in the spotty acoustics of the 500-seat theatre. Kate Arrington, slowly melting down before us, and Tim Bickel complete the cast, respectively, as Bee and JJ, a Latino gardener and Bee's lover after Jay. The play's three locations are given an austere ( large rooms with little furniture ) beige treatment by designer Todd Rosenthal, who accomplishes surprise instant set changes via revolving platforms and trapdoors.
Norris writes pithy, smart and ironic dialogue but he also has made Bee a nearly passive figure who does nothing substantial to control her own destiny. We learn little about Bee, who has no past and very little history. Combine that with her self-absorbed unconcern about the approaching global plague, and Bee becomes more pitiable than likeable.
Norris ends the play precisely as it began, repeating the opening linesan homage to another absurdist work, Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano.