In Bruce Norris' stark comedy A Parallelogram, 30-ish Bee (Marin Ireland) — a regional manager for Rite Aid, a job that's “very fulfilling,” she quips — is in this inexorably doomed relationship with a slightly older man (Tom Irwin) whom, later in the play, the older Bee (Marylouise Burke) will refer to as “a gigantic asshole.”

As in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, women float around the stage talking to their future selves, who talk back.

Regarding that “gigantic asshole,” whose name is Jay: He is divorced and still speaks on the phone to his ex — which irks Bee, who in one scene makes a snide crack about one of Jay's kids, which pisses off Jay no end.

Jay thinks he's a good guy. He enjoys watching sports on TV to distract him from the wearying annoyance of life with depressive Bee, who rather enjoys tormenting him with her critiques of his behavior. He opens and closes the play with the kind of monologue comprised of half-thoughts, interrupted by digressions, cobbled together into a scintillating aria. This is one of Norris' calling cards as a playwright.

Jay poses some rhetorical questions: “How do I always wind up playing the bad guy? Because I'm the man? Are we saying there's something inherently unsympathetic about men — or white men — in particular?”

In the play, at the Mark Taper Forum, he will professes his love to Bee. His professing will turn out to be nonsense. Many people talk a lot of nonsense in this play, though they believe it to be true at the time. And this linguistic pointlessness is part of Norris' view of human futility.

Jay can't see or hear the older Bee, though he smells her cigarette smoke, and thus accuses the younger Bee of smoking and lying about it — he constantly lands on his face after leaping to dubious conclusions.

The older Bee tells the younger Bee how her life is going to turn out, and it's not pretty. In truth, it drives her slightly batty. The horrified younger Bee aches to alter destiny. Her prophetic wisdom, that knowledge of her own miserable future, motivates her ongoing satire of Jay's self-important posturings and declarations.

As for the future, the older Bee just shrugs. In addition to the meandering purposelessness of Bee's life, the human race will be felled by a contagion. Life will be better, though. More places to park. A quieter planet, the older Bee explains between puffs. Burke plays the role with whimsical cynicism, which is very funny. She sits around in sweatpants like a shaman from a Florida retirement home, holding a kind of remote control with which she can, upon request, replay scenes we've just witnessed, in order for the younger Bee to alter their outcomes. This is playful stuff, in a Groundlings sketch comedy kind of way. It's a child's play version of Beckett, which is where Norris is headed, philosophically. Bee makes some petty changes in a couple of her interactions with Jay, but they have no bearing on larger outcomes.

There's Latino gardener JJ (Carlo Albán), who falls for the younger Bee. Their romance is part of Jay's torment — he's trying to accept his own failure to sustain a relationship. But he's so jocularly self-pitying and unwittingly pedantic — convinced that Bee has lost her mind (a distinct possibility, given the phantoms she's talking to). Bee had insisted that the pursuit of money was a pernicious obsession, until she didn't have any. All those beautiful, pointless arguments.

Under Anna D. Shapiro's staging (she also directed Irwin and Burke in Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre production), A Parallelogram is largely propelled by a combination of Norris' writing, which rolls from the stage in swaths of wit, and which this ensemble flicks to and fro, as though playing volleyball with his dialogue.

Irwin's performance as Jay is marvelous, lingering persistently and obnoxiously on the margins of comprehension as to what is unfolding in front of his eyes. How is he to know of the ghosts that only Bee sees?

Yet, despite the admirable quality of the performances and the repartee, there's something smug about the metaphysics underlying the play, something unearned in the cynicism. When Albee or Pinter has a go at existential desolation, it emerges in the ice between intimates, the savagery in the silences. Norris merely chats about it through his characters in a kind of sitcom variation. Beckett's clown characters fight the horrors of their doom. Norris' more or less shrug it off. Even the younger Bee barely puts up a fight. She makes a couple of tries to change before she pops too many pills and winds up in the hospital.

It's also hard to ignore how Pinter — a master dramatist of the cold-blooded distance and terror of human relations — spent the latter part of his life crusading for human rights. Though his theatrical view of human nature was dire, Pinter dedicated much of his life to the proposition that human action can, and should, help relieve suffering.

I watched this play while evacuated from Idyllwild, as the Mountain fire threatened my home there. An army of 3,300 firefighters assembled to forge and fortify fire lines around the town. They saved it. Helicopters and air tankers dumped thousands of gallons of water and fire retardant, while A Parallelogram made its flippant case for the futility of human action. Perhaps it was contextual, but I found the play's fatalism to be evocatively written slop.

There's some Woody Allen film where he's depressed — as always — lamenting because the universe is expanding. At least Allen gets the joke, even when he makes himself the butt of it.

Norris' play seems to take the same joke seriously or, at least, asks us to take it seriously.

I just can't.

For better and worse, we are shaping our own destiny, and always did.

A PARALLELOGRAM | By Bruce Norris | Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Aug. 18 | (213) 628-2772 |

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