Thursday, August 12, 2010

'A Parallelogram' Presents Interesting Angles, But Is Too Obtuse to Be Acutely Rewarding

Theater Review

A Parallelogram
a play by Bruce Norris
Starring Tom Irwin, Kate Arrington & Marylouise Burke
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

Aside from plays that I see as part of subscriptions to Goodman Theatre and Broadway in Chicago, there are about five factors that influence my desire to attend a dramatic performance. In no particular order, these include critical praise from the media (mostly the Tribune's Chris Jones, but also the Sun-Times, Reader and other local press), rave reviews from friends & family, particular actors that I want to see, the desire to become more familiar with a given playwright and finally, the ability to obtain cheap tickets.

'A Parallelogram,' now playing in the downstairs theater at Steppenwolf, had a solid four and nearly five of these motivators in its favor. Jones lauded the world premiere show and an astute theatergoing friend recommended it. It stars Kate Arrington, probably the most attractive actress working in Chicago today, and Tom Irwin, a longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member who I enjoyed long ago as the father on TV's "My So-Called Life." Although I haven't seen much by writer Bruce Norris, who I've only heard of because he's regularly commissioned by Steppenwolf and is the brother of former MTV News reporter John Norris, I liked his 2005 play, The Pain and the Itch. And as I usually do, I was able to obtain a $20 day-of ticket by calling the box office at 11am.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for 'A Parallelogram' was greater going in than it was upon leaving. Although the play, which depending on one's interpretation revolves around time travel, psychic abilities or projections of one's future due to traumatic illness, is inventive, includes engaging, at-times humorous dialogue, and moves along at a good clip, in the end I was unsure what it meant, literally or figuratively. And despite a post-show talk that indicated that the play is intentionally ambiguous, it didn't leave me with a good confusion--as in "let me ponder all the intriguing questions"--as much as a sense of unresolved ambivalence.

Despite dressing down for the role, Arrington was lovely as main character, Bee, and interacted engagingly with the likable Irwin and even more so, Marylouise Burke, who played Bee at an advanced age. The stage set changed in unique ways that complemented the time-shifting storyline. But ultimately I never really cared about the characters, and whatever Norris may be trying to say about living for today, not worrying about the future, etc., didn't really strike me as all that meaningful given the narrative at hand.

Perhaps 'A Parallelogram' was profound in ways that I just didn't appreciate, but it felt like merely a run-of-the-mill play, not a special one. And while a second viewing and further consideration might help it better take shape, I don't anticipate re-discovering it anytime in the near future.

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