REVIEW: A Parallelogram (Steppenwolf Theatre)

An astonishing message from the future



Steppenwolf Theatre presents
A Parallelogram
Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by
Anna D. Shapiro
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $50  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker

Forgive me, but I am going to use a cliché blurb: If you only see one play this year, see Steppenwolf Theatre’s A Parallelogram.

I know. You might be put off by the title. But I swear, this is not a dramatic telling of geometric principles. It is partly a lesson in physics, but really it’s more of an existentialist drama with a science fiction tinge. Like, have you ever wondered what it  would be like if Samuel Beckett and Kurt Vonnegut got together over a bottle of whiskey and hashed out a play? Well, this is that play.

Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 09 Written by Bruce Norris—a Steppenwolf regular whose other works include We All Went Down to Amsterdam and The Pain and the Itch, among others—the play tells the tale of Bee (Kate Arrington), a woman who was the other woman to Jay (Tom Irwin) before he left his wife for her. They live in an unremarkable home with a pool and a backyard, which is cared for by JJ (Tim Bickel), the friendly Guatemalan landscaper.

At the top of the play, Jay lectures Bee about smoking in the house. The only problem is, Bee doesn’t smoke. Enter the other Bee (Marylouise Burke) who watches this action from a place that is beyond time. She is Bee from the future and is visible and audible to young Bee only. Sitting in a chair stage left, she smokes and fills up on Oreos while providing her own personal commentary.

How is it possible for Bee to see herself from the future? Although we as the audience must suspend our disbelief, we do get an explanation. Time, as we know it, is merely a construction of the human mind. Therefore, the moment you are born and the moment you die are the exact same moment. Taken a step further, these moments are happening right now and will happen now forever. Add to this Einstein’s theory of the universe and that parallel lines if extended to infinity would eventually intersect, and you have the answer. Okay. So it’s a little confusing. But does it matter?

Younger Bee wants the Future Bee to tell her about her life. Future Bee obliges, even using a special remote control to give Younger Bee the chance to change the present in order to influence the future. But as Future Bee continually iterates, you may be able to alter the short term, but the long term is pretty much set.

There’s also tension due to Younger Bee’s dwindling sanity, her inability to have children and a disease that threatens to wipe out the human race. It’s definitely a lot to cram into one play, but Norris is a master of economy. He consistently manages to give a scene or a conversation just the right amount of time, his pacing is impeccable and he can tie together disparate elements in a way that makes perfect sense.


Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 01 Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 03
Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 05 Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 07

The acting is phenomenal. You can feel the audience get giddy every time Burke opens her mouth. She plays Future Bee with a rare sort of comedic brashness. When she breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, it plays like a George Carlin stand-up routine.

Arrington pulls us into her character, making us feel the pain of knowing, knowing how relationships will end and knowing how people will die. And Irwin makes a great sympathetic jerk who wonders if his future-seeing girlfriend is God’s punishment for his past infidelities.

Director Anna Shapiro knows this material well. She comes at the heady story with a comedic eye, which relieves the pretension that could so easily have sunk the play

And although I don’t often comment on it, the set design is amazing. A Parallelogram has one of the most eye-popping set transitions I have ever seen.

If you don’t already have your tickets, get them now. But then again, what is now? And if you are going to see it, doesn’t that mean you’ve already seen it or that you are seeing it right now? Who knows? Whatever the case may be, go see this play.

Rating: ★★★★





Production Personnel



Designers, Authors and Crew

Author: Bruce Norris
Directed by: ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro
Scenic Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design: Mara Blumenfeld
Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls
Sound Design: Michael Bodeen, Rob Milburn
Stage Manager: Laura D. Glenn
Assistant Stage Manager: Christine D. Freeburg


12 Responses

  1. Hey, two small corrections: the character of JJ, played by Tim Bickel, is Guatemalan, not Mexican, and “Future Bee” is actually credited as Bee 2, 3, 4.

    • I knew “Future Bee” was Bee 2, 3, 4, but it was easier to shorthand Future Bee than to explain the multiple iterations of Bee throughout different periods of time.

  2. The play’s grand revelation that people can influence people even if it’s all meaningless in the end is almost as moving (and refined) as “give peace a chance.” It’s the character development and nuisance that really makes it sing. Where would a play be without a lazy, pot smoking “idiot” Mexican or a self-obsessed, philandering white guy? Norris’s best work by far. But that only means it’s not a complete disaster – just boring, heartless theater.

    • Thanks for the comment, ga.

      I feel a play in and of itself is only half the story. We, the audience, bring the other half. It is our own projections and interpretations of the actions on stage that influence how we perceive a play. Your experience was that JJ is a lazy idiot. My experience was that he saw an opportunity to provide comfort to someone during a time of need. You saw Jay as self-obsessed and philandering, whereas I saw someone who was trying to redeem himself to rid himself of guilt.

      That’s the beauty of art. We can all have unique experiences through it.

  3. wow, beutifully put

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  6. “A Paralleogram” is simply a brilliant wonderful premise of a play gone increasingly downhill toward a crash. The characaters (save Tom Irwin) are largely a bore, mostly by text and perhaps a bit less by performance. The lovely and usually fine Kate Arrington is completely inauthentic in this play, she appears with fine poise and diction..but no real internal character (since she is given very little to work with)..simply a beautiful woman and no soul on stage. I would never believe for a moment any of Arrington’s dialogue, save the fact that she would hook-up with the lawn guy…whose accent is a hair-brained amalgam of about six Latino dialects over-articulated!

    How disappointing “A Paralleogram” with a a grand great premise! I wonder if the lovely Ms. Weiss has ever deeply studied the seminal playwrights whom she compares tematically to Norris in this play. There is only a surface Steppenwolf-boosterish comparison, at best.

    It would seem so easy to be youthfully taken by “A Paralleogram” do to its important theme and wonderful directorial/performance approach by the actors and director Shapiro…but in the end all is parallel to mirrors, grand standing and tinted smoke!

    The actors perform adequately in the end with what very little they were given in both text, plot and overall frame. But “A Paralleogram” is nothing more than a great playwriting thesis project for an MFA student in a reputable playwriting program, but beyond that…it is still quite in workshop as far as the professional American theatre is concerned.

    As for Vonnegut and Beckett…just the first ten to fifteen pages which either of them has written in any of their oeuvres far surpasses anything in totality of “A Parallelogram.” Really Ms. Weiss, I suggest you become more measured and a bit more discriminating with your often times brilliant incites and pen…sometimes becoming easily impressed spawns the museumed-big-dinosaur-on-display in even among the very gifted of drama critics!

  7. Quite late, I know, but I’m afraid I didn’t like it much. The idea of having no free will is very old, and in my opinion Parallelogram didn’t really bring anything new to it. I found it stilted and a tad boring.

  8. […] A Parallelogram  Steppenwolf Theatre (July 2010) Written by Bruce Norris Directed by Anna D. Shapiro our review  […]

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