In Second Stage Theater's world premiere of A Parallelogram by Tony Award winner Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park), Broadway vets Celia Keenan-Bolger and Anita Gillette play a pair of women with a powerful connection — but that's just about all they can reveal. The enigmatic new play asks, "If you knew in advance exactly what was going to happen in your life…and if you knew you couldn't do anything to change it, would you still want to go on living?"

In a recent conversation with TheaterMania, the two women answered that question while also sharing their thoughts on how theater is like an addiction, the fourth wall, and Bruce Norris's unique (and occasionally depressing) world view.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Anita Gillette, stars of Bruce Norris's A Parallelogram
Celia Keenan-Bolger and Anita Gillette, stars of Bruce Norris's A Parallelogram
(© Joan Marcus)

What can you tell me about your relationship in the play?
Anita: I don't know how much we're supposed to talk about that, but we're very much alike. You could say that.

Celia: There's a strong connection between our characters…It's very interestingly laid out for you because basically the audience spends the entire first act not necessarily understanding who these people are to one another. And I would say that even at the end of the play some people have asked me like, do you think that the relationship is, you know, what we see? It's not laid out in a way that is concrete.

How has your offstage relationship been developing?
Anita: We're in love. [laughs]

Celia: We are in love! I've been saying to everybody who will listen, if I have what Anita Gillette has when I'm 80 years old I'm gonna feel like I've won the lottery. I'm so in awe of her. I'm going to embarrass you, Anita.

Anita: That's all right. I don't mind.

Celia: I'm impressed by the rigor that she has been able to bring to this extremely difficult roll. I mean, she has pages of monologues and she's not using an ear piece. How is she doing it? It has been a major gift for me to be around someone like her.

Anita: I asked if I could be her mother. She's just a joy to work with, and she's so good in this play. It's amazing how Celia has wrapped her brain around all of this and been there and saved my ass a couple times. We're still rehearsing you know, and I think we'll be rehearsing until opening — it's just crazy.

Celia: I'm exhausted and I'm not 80 years old. She really is not to be believed. I feel like I had this experience when I saw Andrea Martin in Pippin. If you can stick with it, there is such a case for growing old in the theater, because these women, they're powerhouses. And it's so inspiring to be around. But it also makes me think, Anita says, "Theater is like an addiction." She's like, "What am I still doing here!? I'm just addicted!"

Anita: That's right, exactly. I said this is either going to be my swan song or my Waterloo.

What is it about performing a Bruce Norris play that makes it such an intense experience?
Celia: Usually you have to get a bunch of words in your head or you have to go to really hard places, and I think this play asks both. It's interesting that both Anita and I have musical backgrounds. There's something about his writing that you can tell when you're sort of in the pocket and you can tell when you're not. So you're trying to honor the music of what Bruce has written, you're trying to get all of the words right. He's written a play that's asking some very, very big questions and as an actor you're trying to integrate all of those pretty complex ideas, so that's been hard.

Anita: My character breaks the fourth wall so she actually has a relationship with the audience. It's great when everybody is with it. There has to be a certain amount of charm but you can't be too charming. It can't be cute. In order to get them to listen to you they have to like you enough to stand for these long monologues. It's a very difficult line to walk.

Tell me about Bruce Norris's world view and how it aligns with your own.
Celia: I think he feels that human beings are generally self-interested and just trying to preserve themselves. Part of what drew me to this piece is I don't feel like I necessarily line up with his world view. But the conversations that I've had with people after the play have been so interesting, and I do think he makes a really good case for both sides. It's not just one thing that's presented. He's been very good about saying he wants the audience to be able to decide whether they will go along with this idea or not.

Anita: He makes the audience think. Sometimes they're thinking too much and I can't get them to laugh. But you always know at the end of the show that they've got it. People who I know who have been in the audiences said that everybody at intermission is just asking questions and talking about the show. It wasn't all about, "I've gotta get to the bathroom." It's thought-provoking and that's what good plays, I think, do.

If you could know your future would you?
Anita: I wouldn't.

Celia: No, me neither. The pursuit of trying to be good in the world is part of being alive. And if you already know what's going to happen, I think it would take away a lot of my sort of excitement about living, even if what I found out was going to be great.

Anita: That's part of the joy of living. You never know what's going to happen. I like surprises.

The cast and creative team of A Parallelogram: Michael Greif, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Stephen Kunken, Anita Gillette, Juan Castano, and Bruce Norris.
The cast and creative team of A Parallelogram: Michael Greif, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Stephen Kunken, Anita Gillette, Juan Castano, and Bruce Norris.
(photo provided by Polk & Co.)