A refresher course in high school geometry isn't a prerequisite for "A Parallelogram," the play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Bruce Norris running at the Mark Taper Forum. But it certainly wouldn't hurt.
The four actors in Norris' strange, ambiguous domestic drama serve as the corners of a narrative quadrilateral that keeps shifting and changing shape, at times threatening to break apart and enter another dimension.
The more relevant course work might be advanced geometry of the non-Euclidean variety. In one scene, a character describes the counterintuitive notion that two parallel lines can in fact intersect.
"Imagine that each line also extends indefinitely in all directions and since space is infinitely curved, that means that any two parallel lines eventually cross at some point. You follow me?" she says.
It's understandable if theater audiences can't. "A Parallelogram" isn't a play about geometric theorems but rather a psychological study of a woman whose mind disintegrates when she is inexplicably visited by an apparition of her older self.
Norris declined to explain the play's meaning. "You don't set out with a thesis statement. My intention is to create an experience, a sensation," he said
In person, Norris, 53, can be prickly and peevish but in a knowing, sometimes humorous way that actually comes off as endearing. He was seated next to director Anna B. Shapiro in a small, barely furnished dressing room backstage at the Taper.
Shapiro, the Tony-winning director of Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," is as outgoing and personable and Norris is reserved, and together they make an intriguing creative duo. This fall, they will team again in New York for Norris' latest play, "Domesticated," a politically themed drama starring Jeff Goldblum, that will open at Lincoln Center on Nov. 4.
"A Parallelogram" was first presented in 2010 at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Since then, it has undergone light revisions because of what the playwright said were befuddled reactions from audiences.
The playwright said "Parallelogram" was partly inspired by a recent revival of "Our Town" by Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre that was co-directed by Shapiro. In particular, the role of Thornton Wilder's Stage Manager, who narrates the classic play, proved especially intriguing.
"We wanted to mess with the concept of the narrator as the audience's surrogate," he said.
In the play, thirtysomething Bee (Marin Ireland) is visited by the specter of her older self (Marylouise Burke), who sits in an armchair and dispenses jaded wisdom. Young Bee is amid a relationship crisis with her significantly older boyfriend (Tom Irwin); she also develops a growing affection for the young man who tends to her yard (Carlo Alban).
Shapiro has described "Parallelogram" as being in part about the "belief in the power of the do-over." In certain scenes, the older Bee uses a supernatural remote control to rewind a conversation. Time is flexible, and so is one of the characters' identities.
This is especially true in the play's second half, which offers a twist that suggests the David Lynch movie "Mulholland Dr." crossed with ABC's "Grey's Anatomy." (Norris didn't agree with the Lynch comparison. "David Lynch is a mystic. I'm not a mystic," he said.)
The second act has been reworked since the Chicago run, where Norris said he became "concerned that audiences misinterpreted facts in the play." During audience "talk backs" after a play — which, no surprise, Norris dislikes — he and Shapiro found that viewers were interpreting the story rather freely.
"Neither of us likes to point out things directly," the playwright said. "But that made me very uncomfortable."
On a roll
Since winning the Pulitzer and Tony Award for his play "Clybourne Park," which ran at the Taper last year en route to Broadway, Norris has vaulted to the top echelon of American playwrights.
He said he wrote "Clybourne" and "Parallelogram" around the same time and since then has completed three more scripts, including "The Low Road," a historical ensemble drama about capitalism and religion in colonial America, that opened this year in London.
When asked what winning awards means to him, Norris was typically terse: "The only thing they do is relieve you of the misery and self-hatred of not having them."
Norris is reticent about his private life but spoke about growing up in Texas — he was a child actor in a local production of "The King and I" — and about the exploding level of wealth in his midtown New York neighborhood.
He also brought up what he sees as a common misconception about him: He's not gay. "I'm not sure how that got started," he said. "Maybe because I'm slender and articulate?"
Norris' plays often seem designed to hold an unflattering mirror to the white liberals who constitute the majority of play-going audiences: "Clybourne" addressed the hypocrisies of urban gentrification; "The Pain and the Itch" tackled sexual abuse in an upper middle-class family; "The Qualms," opening next year at Steppenwolf, is about sexual jealousy among progressive-minded partner swappers.
But Norris isn't a misanthrope or a provocateur in the Neil LaBute or David Mamet vein. His plays are often humorous, and his characters are usually likable even if deeply flawed.
In fact, there has been more interpersonal meanness in Norris' professional life than in his plays. The playwright clashed with volatile producer Scott Rudin last season, a fight that nearly sank the Broadway transfer of "Clybourne."
Norris, a sometime actor, withdrew from a supporting role in the planned HBO series "The Corrections," based on the novel by Jonathan Franzen, that Rudin was producing, and Rudin pulled out of producing "Clybourne." (The production eventually made it to Broadway and won the Tony for best play.)
When asked about the dispute, Norris would say only that he and Rudin no longer have a working relationship.
Going for a ride
Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty wrote that "A Parallelogram" is "an existential riddle that's ultimately more vexing than enlightening." Viewers of "Parallelogram" who felt adrift during the play's bizarre temporal shifts can take solace that cast members were also bewildered by the script at first.
"The play definitely took me on a ride the first time I read it," said Ireland. The actress, who grew up in Camarillo and now lives in New York, said she didn't know what to make of the story. "I didn't know what it was about."
Burke, in the play at Steppenwolf, described it as "an unusual play and inside of that, it's a very normal play. The people talk like people, the relationships are vivid."
Shapiro, who directed the play in Chicago and L.A., has faith that viewers will be able to hold on for the ride — even nonmath majors.
"We've learned that audiences will go with you," she said. "There are parts of the play that just aren't possible. But if you attach something that's impossible to something that's very normal, they will be able to follow."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun