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Time Travel Becomes A Shallow Gimmick In 'A Parallelogram'

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I don't mind gimmick plays, shows where a twist of the structure provides a new way to look at something otherwise quite familiar. I would include in this description works such as Pinter's Betrayal, where the timeline is presented in reverse chronological order, or Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy, where bright light stands in for a pitch-dark room. The cleverness of such plays is often the source of their appeal, and when done well, they're very satisfying. Bruce Norris' The Parallelogram is another such show, currently receiving its west coast premiere at the Taper. Although the cast is terrific and the production is top-notch and the play is amusing, it's somewhat shallow.

Bee (Marin Ireland) has made the surprising discovery of her future self, Bee 2 (Marylouise Burke), who has traveled back in time to visit. Bee 2 has a gadget that will allow Bee to go back and redo various aspects of her life, which she is assured won't change much of anything. Regrettably, Bee is the only one who can see or hear Bee 2, which leads Bee's boyfriend Jay (Tom Irwin) to think that she's bonkers. But that's okay, reassures Bee 2, most of the world is going to die soon in an epidemic anyway.

Ireland does a nice job conveying Bee's detached nature, spending most of the play more concerned with her game of solitaire than any of the people she's interacting with. The problem with Bee, however, is that she's very thinly-sketched overall, and combined with her comedic detachment her sudden burst of emotion at play's end feels forced and unconnected with what has come before. Burke fares better as Bee 2 in that in it is a purely comic role, but although she has a bit more character development in terms of her history, this all comes in the form of jokes that don't add up to a three-dimensional person. Irwin gives the best performance as Jay, raging and whining and endlessly speechifying, because he gets a believable character to play. It's a tribute to Irwin that, even though Jay is clearly a self-involved blowhard, he's also sympathetic in his failings, not realizing that he's merely a pawn in the time rearrangement game. Carlo Albán is good as gardener JJ, but as with most of the characters in this show, his role as written is mostly a one-note joke.

Anna D. Shapiro's direction is sure-handed and her pacing is swift, and her staging of a clever set change at the end of Act 1 caused the audience to gasp with pleased surprise. The problem here is the play itself, which is moderately entertaining and witty but flawed in a couple of major ways. The first (and already mentioned) problem is the lack of depth in most of the characters. It's fine if Norris just wanted to make a silly comedy, but he clearly wants us to care about Bee and Jay, and Bee is such a blank that we don't. The second problem is the playwright's lack of respect for his own gimmick. We never find out why Bee 2 is there leading Bee through alternate versions of her life, which is only the entire reason the story is happening. The rule of most time travel stories, i.e. if you mess with your past you'll change your future, is simply shrugged off. And finally the comedic nihilism of the play's philosophy rings with the deep wisdom of a sullen teenager: "Nothing I do makes a difference. Whatever." The play is ultimately a time travel story that seems written by someone who doesn't know that are a lot of time travel stories out there, and most of them are better.

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"A Parallelogram" plays at the Mark Taper Forum through Aug. 18. Tickets are available online.