After Bruce Norris’s A Parallelogram at Second Stage Theater, I stood outside and cried on the sidewalk.
Okay, so it had been a long day, but I would be lying if I said that the restless, disturbing new play at the Tony Kiser hadn’t burrowed under my skin. Specifically, I couldn’t shake the image of a biopsy. In A Parallelogram, traumas great and small that have shaped the central character, Bee, happen offstage and then haunt the play’s increasingly frantic (and increasingly complex) present tense, recurring like insidious, unshakable refrains. A finger bitten by a bird in childhood, a cancer diagnosis, a hysterectomy, a brain biopsy. In its merciless incision into the afflicted gray matter of our present moment, Bruce Norris’s play feels like a kind of biopsy itself — it pokes a hole and lays a slice of our raw, insoluble anxieties on the glass slab of a theatrical microscope. And the diagnosis is … not great.
The premise is simple — to start with. Bee puts it plainly enough to her boyfriend Jay (Stephen Kunken) near the play’s beginning: “If you knew in advance exactly what was going to happen in your life, and how everything was going to turn out, and if you knew you couldn’t do anything to change it, would you still want to go on with your life?”
There’s something bracing in Norris’s quick, frank statement of his play’s central question — he’s not wasting time swanning about. Perhaps he, like Bee 2/Bee 3/Bee 4 (an identity-shifting semi-narrator figure played with a mordant shrug and a wicked laugh by Anita Gillette), is feeling the sloughing-off of pretension that comes with age. According to Bee 2, “one of the few good things about getting older” is that “you learn not to pay attention so much.” In one of her funniest monologues to the audience, she attributes that moment when you’re “talking to an older person and they’re sort of staring off into the distance” not to senility but to said older person’s revelation that, well, most people are just petrifyingly boring. “When we’re doing that?” Bee 2 quips, deadpan, “Usually it means we don’t give a shit.”
It’s stinging and funny, but it’s also a clever, contrarian way for Norris to wrestle with the real crux of his play: In essence, A Parallelogram is about giving a shit. It’s about awakening to a world that feels incurably riddled with stupidity, inequity, and injustice, like hydra-headed tumors proliferating in a human body. It’s about the paralyzing sense of impotence that comes with attempting to stay awake: the Sisyphean and perhaps self-aggrandizing struggle to encompass all of humanity with our compassion, our good intentions, our — ultimately limited — capacity for right action.
Norris’s play is a spinal tap straight into the well-meaning neuroticism of the privileged, white, Western liberal — or, these days, “progressive” (it would make a deadly double bill with Wallace Shawn’s seminal monologue The Fever). To be clear, I belong to this particular species of primate, and according to statistics gathered by organizations like the Broadway League, so do a majority of my fellow theatergoers. Thus my tears on the 43rd Street curb. I left A Parallelogram with the same feeling in my internal organs that I’ve had after watching certain episodes of Black Mirror — and Norris’s play strikes me as the closest I have seen a piece of contemporary theater come to accessing that same unsettling strain of science-not-quite-fiction.
Like Black Mirror, or like its fellow Netflix series Jessica Jones, A Parallelogram chooses a particular genre device, a trope from the sci-fi canon, through which to work out its central metaphor. Here, the device is literally that: It’s a remote-control-like object wielded by Bee 2 (or, when she can get her hands on it, by Bee), that can seemingly zap Bee forward or backward to any moment in her life (Bee 2/Bee 3/Bee 4, you may have already guessed, are quite possibly older versions of Bee herself, existing simultaneously but on different predetermined planes of time). Jessica Jones uses the trope of superpowered mind control to create a powerful allegory about the trauma of abuse. A Parallelogram riffs on time travel and parallel (aha!) universes to dig into the fear that our existence — no matter our virtuous thoughts or even our righteous acts — is at best meaningless and at worst destructive. For me, it’s a play that springs directly from the ashes of November 9, 2016: How do we live when we feel powerless to bring about change, even in ourselves? What do we do when the system seems all-encompassing, unbeatable? How do we make use of our righteousness and our shame — for both can be useful emotions — without becoming bloated by the one or paralyzed by the other?
Norris, director Michael Greif, and their company have done a rare thing: They have created a production that’s not asking to be liked, a play that isn’t seeking the little blue thumbs-up of approval that dominates a frightening percentage of our present-day interactions. Celia Keenan-Bolger as Bee is getting downright ugly up there as a woman whose mind — no, whose literal brain — might not survive the process of going from asleep to awake. Gillette is reveling in the nasty mischief of a part that allows her to joke about matters from 9/11 to the Holocaust with a cosmic sense of irreverence. And sound designer Matt Tierney has gone further than the mandatory beeps and boops required of a time-shifting remote control: He has threaded subtle but deeply unnerving textures into the space during crucial periods of action — you can’t hear the frequencies so much as feel them in your bowels. Anxiety in sonic form.
“I’m a good person!” Bee insists as she ignores Jay, who’s bleeding in the bathroom. “You want to say anything?” says Jay to Bee, and then immediately continues to speak over her when she opens her mouth. Both Jay and Bee fervently discuss the upsetting experience they had vacationing on an unnamed, probably Central American island — “The people in that part of the world … they have nothing while we have, like, everything and you start to so feel guilty!”— while JJ (Juan Castano), the Central American young man who cuts their grass, stands outside their screen door, sweating in the 90-degree heat, waiting to get paid.
A Parallelogram is interested in the ways in which we fail — constantly, painfully — those nearest to us while trying to expand the net of our theoretical empathy ever wider. If there is any hope to be found in Norris’s unsparing send-up of our human attempts to give a shit — and then to do something, anything with our compassion — then it is a Pandora’s box kind of hope, frail and perhaps doomed with the rest of our efforts: “Why not go back to the very beginning and just be nice to people?!” Bee cries. It’s not much, but sometimes it feels like the only place to begin.
A Parallelogram is at Second Stage through August 20.