by Michael Bracken
Celia Keenan-Bolger has grown up. The girl who played Laura in The Glass Menagerie is no ingenue in Bruce Norris’s A Parallelogram, produced by Second Stage Theater. She’s a woman, and she deftly carries the very engaging if not completely satisfying dark comedy with major assistance from a fantastic supporting cast that consists of Anita Gillette, Stephen Kunken, and Juan Castano.
The play begins with Jay (Kunken) declaiming to his live-in girlfriend, Bee (Keenan-Bolger), his plight as the put-upon white male, always cast as the heavy in the saga of life.
Bee sits on the bed, playing solitaire and looking to the bespectacled old woman smoking a cigarette in the corner (Gillette) for help. Bee and the woman communicate by means of hand signals and mouthed words while Jay rants on. When he leaves the room, they talk.
In her hand, the woman has a device that looks and functions like a remote control. She uses it to stop the action so she can talk to us or Bee.
She can also hit rewind, giving Bee the opportunity to improve on a moment just passed. This leads to a very funny sequence in which Jay enters from one side of the bedroom, talks, and then exits on the other side four times.
Kunken plays and replays the bit with amazing precision, as if he had been captured on videotape. He’s very entertaining throughout the piece, spouting speeches at a mile a minute, giving no berth for anyone else to get a word in.
It takes a while to figure out who the woman is, even though she’s not shy about hitting pause to confide in the audience. We eventually learn that she’ Bee at a future point in her life. She (“Bee 2”) has imparted to Bee the notion that everyone in the world, except Bee, will be annihilated by a plague spread by tropical birds.
Against Bee 2’s advice, Bee tells Jay about Bee 2. He thinks she’s crazy or making up a preposterous excuse for smoking. Lo and behold, in the next scene, Bee’s in the hospital. An older oncologist, played by Gillette in another iteration of Bee, is suggesting a biopsy of Bee’s brain because of an inconclusive MRI.
Bee insists the doctor (“Bee 3”) is saying things only she can hear. Jay’s conviction that Bee is wacko deepens, and he leaves her. Juan moves in, accompanied by his Abuelita, who just happens to be, at least for a while, Bee 4.
Bee is the axis around whom the play revolves, and Keenan-Bolger steeps herself in Bee’s complexity without betraying the play’s comic tone. Certain of the existence of the other Bees, she’s disappointed in her unbelieving boyfriend and insecure about herself. She smokes and lies about it; she’s attempted suicide. Keenan-Bolger conveys her pain, fear, and confusion and gets her share of laughs in the process.
Gillette is a delight as Bees 2, 3, and 4. Once a Broadway fixture, she’s not often seen on the New York stage anymore, and it’s a pleasure to have her back in such fun role(s). She goes to town, especially as Bee 2, disheveled and somewhat smug, trailer park fodder but contrarily charming.
Michael Greif’s direction is spot-on. He and his cast tell a tale that’s eminently laughable but tinged with sadness, even desperation. To paraphrase Bee, either she’s right and everyone but she will die, or she’s wrong and she’s crazy. Neither option is very appealing.
Rachel Hauck’s sets are appropriately generic: an unexceptional suburban condo bedroom and a typically antiseptic hospital room. It’s the changeover that is exceptional. In one sweeping gesture, scenery grandly swings in from, or goes out to, either side, while the back-wall glides front or back.
Norris’s play, in addition being very funny, is intelligent and incisive, which is why its ending disappoints. There’s a revelation of sorts, for which he’s laid the groundwork, but it’s anticlimactic. A Parallelogram sets us up for a strong finish but doesn’t deliver.
A Parallelogram. Through August 20th, at the Tony Kiser Theater (305 West 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission www.2ST.com
Photos: Joan Marcus