How do you feel about the whole space-time continuum and time travel? Do you believe that the past, present and future exist in parallel universes separated by dimensions? Does this all make your brain ache or are you already leaning forward waiting for some fantastic adventure time travel adventure like “Back to the Future” or “Men in Black”?
Playwright Bruce Norris has given us parallel lives before in his Tony, Olivier and Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Clybourne Park” where he contrasted the white side of the equation from Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 “A Raisin in the Sun,” but also showed us how race concerns played out in different decades in a then and now comparison. His “A Parallelogram” at the Mark Taper Forum is no less intellectually deep but the events are, sorry science fiction fans, a bit too mundane.
The very title of this 2010 play which premiered at the Chicago Steppenwolf Theatre may frighten those plague with math anxiety. A parallelogram is a shape in Euclidean geometry. You’re familiar with them because a square is one time of parallelogram, having four sides of equal lengths and angles of equal size. In a parallelogram, opposite sides are parallel and of equal length and there are four sides (quadrilateral). So besides a square, a rectangle is a parallelogram. A “diamond” shape is also a parallelogram and can be a rhomboid (a quadrilateral with opposite sides parallel and of equal length but adjacent sides are not of equal length and do not form right angles) or a rhombus (a parallelogram with four equal sides). Are you still with me?
So the shape is familiar but perhaps not the concept and Norris stretches the concept to include other dimensions. Lives run on different planes at different times so your older self and your younger self are living in a different plane of existence as you. The act of their lives run in parallel but never meet, except through future science. Then with the usage of a magical remote from the future, past events can be rewound and replayed with slight changes. Yet the older Bee doesn’t feel that this is a dangerous temptation that might change the balance of the universe. Or that is what Bee (Marin Ireland) is told by her older self (Marylouise Burke).
In the play, we first meet the older Bee. She’s dressed in sweats, sitting on a reclining chair watching the show of her younger self and she’s smoking. The smoking seeps from her time zone to that of the young Bee.
The young Bee can see the older Bee and have conversations, but Bee’s boyfriend, Jay (Tom Irwin) cannot. He can, however, smell the tobacco smoke. What happens, as those experienced with the conceit of the other worldly intruder that only one person can see is that the young Bee seems a bit odd and insane. To be sure, there are laughs here. Direction is under the expert hand of Tony Award-winning Anna D. Shapiro.
The young Bee does end up in a hospital being observed and there are lesions on her brain. I couldn’t help but think of Alison Dubois in the TV series “Medium,” but alas there are no murders prevented or mysteries solved and no family problems and exasperated but loving husband put in the mix.
Bee’s boyfriend first met her in the gym and wanted to bed this much younger women despite being married with kids. When he asked plaintively, “How do I always wind up playing the bad guy,” one can assure him it isn’t just because he’s white. He’s left his wife and moved in but he’s jealous of Bee’s friendship with the gardener, a studly Latino named JJ (Carlo Albán). Is there something insufferably cute about the four characters basically being named for only two letters of the alphabet?
Jay tries to deal with what he perceives as an increasingly unbalanced girlfriend, but we know from the beginning because the older Bee tells us that Jay is no longer around. The older Bee is matter-of-fact about it all yet the young Bee becomes a bit defensive.
With all these rewinds the action doesn’t seem to go anywhere and while you might debate afterward whether young Bee was mentally ill or really receiving visits from her future self, nothing really changes. As the old Bee and the young Bee relive moments and compare, we don’t feel the heartache and poignancy of Emily Webb in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” when she chooses to relive her 12th birthday. Instead, we are left with the quote from the beginning of the play: “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?”
I prefer to remember Emily Webb who realized that life should be valued every single minute. “Our Town” always leaves me with a renewed commitment to enjoying life. “Parallelogram” didn’t resonate with me except perhaps to wish for a really universal remote because who wouldn’t want to rewind and improve a moment every now and then?
“A Parallelogram” continues until August 18 at the Mark Taper Forum.
Tickets for “A Parallelogram” are available by calling (213) 628-2772, visiting online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, or in person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets range from $20 – $70 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Mark Taper Forum is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.