But we are not meant to linger over such questions. Mr. Norris seems to acknowledge in the shagginess of his exposition that plays, existing so concretely in the world we know, are not always successful at delivering speculative alternatives. He wastes only enough energy on the setup to allow the plot to stagger forward and introduce his thematic concerns: If you knew your future, would you try to revise it? And, if so, would it make any difference?
Bee’s answer to the first is maybe; the play’s answer to the second is, “Not much.” With that shrug, “A Parallelogram,” which at first seems like a change of pace from Mr. Norris’s usual satirical approach, reveals itself as more of the same but weaker.
Obviously that was not his intention. “My instinct is to try to point toward things in society that are stupid and to laugh,” he said in an interview for the premiere of “A Parallelogram” at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago. He was referring to earlier plays like “The Pain and the Itch” and “Clybourne Park,” which won the Pulitzer Prize. If satire addresses “the manner of living,” he added, “A Parallelogram” is about something “more finite.”
That’s true to the extent you accept it as a play whose subject is death and dying. The future Bee understands that it’s of no consequence whether younger Bee stays with Jay, or takes up with JJ (Juan Castano), the nice young man who cuts their lawn. How could it be, in a world that absorbs all manner of disaster — famines, Sept. 11, a future viral pandemic — with a shrug? Future Bee reports happily that just a few years past that pandemic, the world is actually better than it was: “You never have to look for a parking space.”
That’s the kind of line Mr. Norris made his name on, puncturing political correctness with awful truths no one else would utter. “A Parallelogram” is filled with them, but as they are all variations on the same fatalistic theme, they offer diminishing returns of pleasure.
And though the cast members deploy them with panache they cannot overcome the stagnation built into the narrative structure. Eventually you tire of Ms. Gillette’s ribald little-old-lady shtick, Ms. Keenan-Bolger’s flattened anger and wonderment, Mr. Kunken’s verbal manspreading and Mr. Castano’s nonspecific bonhomie. Marshaling excellent design on all fronts, Mr. Greif’s swift and intelligent staging emphasizes the problem by framing it so well.
Framing is not just a surface problem here. A good thing to ask about big-idea plays like this is whether what’s left after you untangle the chronology is of any special interest. In a play like Jordan Harrison’s “Marjorie Prime,” it is: The structure and the content are independently expressive. Here, they are mutually detracting. Because the story must be simplistic enough to make the structure legible, the structure becomes overbearing to make up the difference.
The combination leaves Mr. Norris frequently pumping the gas pedal with the brakes on. His ginned-up climaxes go nowhere. You feel doubly let down, asking a version of Bee’s basic question: If you knew how the play ended when it began, would you see it? In this case, I think not.
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