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Bleak and Bleaker

With A Parallelogram, Bruce Norris makes his case for utter futility.

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A Parallelogram Steppenwolf Theatre COMPANY

Judging from the string of witty, biting, profoundly pessimistic plays Bruce Norris has written over the past decade or so, it would seem he's still the charming misanthrope I knew during my undergrad days at Northwestern 25 years ago. But now his audience isn't limited to a smarty-pants coterie cracking up as he waxes fractious over coffee in an Evanston greasy spoon. Since The Infidel in 2000, Norris's plays have appeared regularly on Steppenwolf Theatre's main stage, and his recent off-Broadway hit, Clybourne Park, will open the fall season at the Royal Court in London. Screw the power of positive thinking—Norris has found success staying true to his inner crank.

And he's in rare form in his newest play, A Parallelogram, getting a smartly acted, handsomely designed premiere production at Steppenwolf under Anna Shapiro's direction. While Norris's last two Steppenwolf shows, The Pain and the Itch and The Unmentionables, took aim at the hypocrisy of monied white liberals, this time out he's taking a swipe at the entire human race. With Albee-like, class-conscious acerbity and Beckettian existential gloom, he uses the disintegration of a couple's relationship—coaxed along by a dumpy, chain-smoking old biddy who's mastered the art of time travel—to demonstrate the utter futility of our every endeavor.

That's a tall order, and that Norris feels he's got to rewrite the laws of physics in order to fill it is the first sign that he may've bitten off more than he can chew. After all, Beckett needed nothing but a couple of clowns on a nearly empty stage to reduce all human striving to deluded farce. But if Norris ultimately fails to make a convincing case for enlightened fatalism, he does, ironically, create a compelling, painfully familiar picture of love fighting to gain a foothold against a torrent of everyday doubts.

A Parallelogram opens in the tastefully nondescript bedroom of an upscale condominium, where Jay and Bee (Tom Irwin and Kate Arrington) are in the midst of a petty squabble. Jay smells cigarette smoke and wants Bee to admit she's smoking on the sly. Bee insists she isn't, but refuses to explain where the smell might've come from. Jay knows Bee's been depressed and wants to promote honesty in their relationship, but given how much time he spends staring through the open door at the television in the other room, it seems he wants to watch the big game just as ardently. Bee laments the ways in which modern creature comforts—television, the Internet, air conditioning—have insulated her from anything that feels like an authentic life.

It's the sort of charged domestic scene—angst and desperation festering beneath a veneer of gentility—that typifies Norris's strengths as a playwright. The Pain and the Itch draws its power from a similar indirection: right-thinking, right-talking family members doing their best to maintain stasis until they're forced to acknowledge that their four-year-old has a venereal disease. Given how expertly Arrington and Irwin tease out the sublimated, nerve-fraying tension between Bee and Jay as self-interest, self-loathing, and self-absorption strangle genuine understanding, it looks like Norris is slowly backing the couple to the edge of a cliff, where they'll have to take some sort of action to avoid going over.

But he takes the play down quite a different path. In short order it's revealed that the smoker is Bee 2, an old woman sitting in the far corner of the bedroom who plays solitaire, eats Oreos, and talks with Bee—the only person to whom she cares to make herself visible. Using a little remote control, Bee 2 can transport herself and Bee to any point in Bee's life. She is of course Bee's future self, one of the few survivors of a global calamity looming in earth's near future. Bee's depression, which Jay attributes to a hysterectomy, is really emotional paralysis in the face of the disaster she knows she can't stop.

Or rather, the disaster she's told she can't stop—a critical distinction the script largely ignores. Bee 2 has come back to the present for the sole purpose of convincing her younger self that nothing she or anyone else does has much influence on the world. The ripple effect, she says, is a fraud. And the impulse to help others—be they poor, sick, or soon-to-be-killed-by-worldwide-catastrophe—is best squelched, since humanity isn't worth the effort anyway. Inasmuch as she's going to survive the looming calamity, and whatever action she might take to prevent it will produce minimal results at best, Bee should just carry on with her necessarily inconsequential life and look forward to the day when parking spaces are exponentially easier to find.

Bee 2 is a fascinating creation who speaks uncomfortable truths—she could sustain an evening-length solo piece of her own. But with no discernible stake in the action, she remains a catalyst rather than a character, pretty much irrelevant once she's said all she has to say. Norris uses her to ask what Bee—and, by extension, the rest of us—would do with the foreknowledge and the means to intervene on humanity's behalf.

The answer here is almost nothing. At first Bee insists that her actions can change the outcome of events. To prove her wrong, Bee 2 rewinds a few seconds to the interaction with Jay. All Bee can think to do to change things is throw a beer bottle at him. The bottle shatters, and later Jay cuts his foot on the glass, but otherwise nothing is different. This episode is virtually all it takes to make Bee concede that human effort is futile, and she spends almost the entire rest of the play in bed—either at home or in a psychiatric hospital, after she's been committed for delusions about old-lady time travelers—playing solitaire and eating Oreos.

Norris cuts Bee off at the knees. Odd as it sounds, Beckett's characters are dynamic in that they're constantly rediscovering life's futility. But Bee's surrender comes so easily that it doesn't seem credible. Her journey stops 30 minutes into a two-hour play. (In a curious subplot, a young Mexican groundskeeper named JJ takes a shine to Bee, but his relevance is never clear.)

Periodically Jay reappears, and Norris lets us watch him try to save his relationship with Bee. This story, too, has a preordained outcome: every time Jay insists he'll never leave Bee, it's obvious that some tiny part of him knows he eventually will. Ultimately Jay comes to discover his fate—the consequences of his actions make that unavoidable. But unlike Bee he doesn't accept his situation until he's lived it, which makes his journey not only true to him but thrilling to watch.   v

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