In plays ranging from “The Pain and the Itch” and “Domesticated” to his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris has tackled some of life’s thorniest issues and difficult questions with an almost unprecedented mixture of honesty, humor and fearlessness. Those qualities are in evidence once more in “A Parallelogram,” and now being given its belated New York City premiere in a top-notch production at Second Stage under Michael Grief’s remarkably assured direction.
Here, we meet within minutes all four of Norris’ main (and admittedly less-than-lovable) characters: a brittle, depressed thirtysomething woman named Bee (Celia Keenan-Bolger), her slightly older boyfriend Jay (Stephen Kunken), their recently hired hunky gardener JJ (Juan Castano), and most importantly, an unidentified older woman (Anita Gillette), whom we eventually discover is Bee in the future.
Bee2 (as she’s billed) possesses a device that plays with time, along with the ability to tell her younger self what awaits, both personally and globally. And, just as important, no matter the topic – from the hypocrisy of social niceties to the ways we appease our own minds – Bee2 tells it like it is, whether or not we want to hear it.
As the two-act work goes on, the plot (as well as Rachel Hauck’s set) morphs in unexpected ways. Still, the main question on Bee’s mind from the moment we meet her-- whether or not you would really want to know the future if you can’t actually change it – not only remains, but resonates more strongly with each revelation. Naturally, (slight spoiler alert) another question inevitably arises: Is this woman nothing more than a figment of Bee’s imagination (and if so, what has caused her to appear)?
What could come off as mere intellectual pretension, or melodramatic invention, instead feels very real thanks to the efforts of this extraordinary cast. Keenan-Bolger, finally playing a full-fledged and not completely sympathetic adult, is simply sublime, bringing out every facet of Bee’s complex personality. Kunken also doesn’t shy from portraying Jay’s many less-than-wonderful attributes (when another character calls him an a-hole, it’s hard to disagree), but he ultimately makes us see that Jay is basically a flawed man who has tried, in his limited way, to make the best of less-than-ideal circumstances.
Meanwhile, the appealing Castano employs considerable charm to soften some of JJ’s rougher edges. But it’s Gillette, a theater veteran for more than 55 years, who walks away with highest honors. True, her spiky character gets all of the best comic lines, but she delivers them with such incredible precision and truthfulness that you never want her to leave the stage.
“A Parallelogram” may not be Norris’ finest work, but I nonetheless implore you to make the time to see it!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Juan Castano, Anita Gillette, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Stephen Kunken
Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036