A World Premiere Dark Comedy
By Bruce Norris
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
At Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
“I wanted to write a play that would make it just impossible to go home afterward and have sex.” – Bruce Norris
Provocative comic debate on the merits of polyamory as a life style garners many uncomfortable laughs.
Putting a frank discussion about sex on stage is a tricky endeavor at best. And to mount a play about sex with little sex is even trickier. But Bruce Norris, always one to spark controversy, loves to make audiences uncomfortable as their discomfort stimulates them to think about his themes. He has done that in The Qualms.
Synopsis (from the press notes) “At a beachside apartment complex, a group of friends gathers for their regular evening of food, drink, drugs and partner-swapping. When Chris (Greg Stuhr) and Kristy ( Diane Davis) attempt to become the newest members, the evening does not go as planned. The artichoke dip grows cold as the party devolves into a territorial battle over mating privileges. Does sex ruin everything? And what is the purpose of monogamy? Bruce Norris’s comedy explores the eternal struggle for power, status and getting laid.”
Placed on Todd Rosenthal’s impressive beachfront living room/kitchen set, The Qualms give each of the four ‘swinger’ couples ample room to begin their sexual advances that constantly get interrupted by food and the apprehensions from Chris. Being, the playwright’s voice, Chris sparks the debate that brings ups the viability of polyamory verses monogamy as we witness the couples’ open mindedness and guilt-free sexual behavior.
Chris questions why exchanging sexual partners is both unnatural and disloyal, the others defend their actions as basic, animal tendencies that we all possess. They reference our constant thoughts about sexual desires with folks other than our spouses including male to male and female to female thoughts. The raw, crude sexual depictions are both funny and vivid. All the arguing and debating ultimately leads to the question of status that is so important in American society. What we own, including our spouses, renders us power and it begs the question of ownership over ones sexual partner. Talking about sex is difficult and questioning the dominance and control that is part of sexual fidelity is even rarer in our discussions. Bruce Norris pushes these considerations with strong characters amply able to expresses their sexual proclivities. The result is a dark, raw comedy that garners laughs as it raises many forbidden topics that certainly will make the squeamish want to ran from the theatre.
I think it’s about time a playwright had the chutzpah to mount a worthy debate about topics like sexual mores in such a funny and razor-sharp manner that is sure to spark discomfort. Topical plays short on story but long on relevant themes have their place in theatre. In the hands of a strong cast lead by Keith Kupferer, Kate Arrington and the brave performance by Kirsten Fitzgerald, The Qualms is worth the trip to Steppenwolf Theatre. Just be warned!
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: July 12,2014
For another point of view-I challenged my quest Luke Heiden to send me his thoughts about The Qualms:
Qualms, qualms, everywhere qualms
To begin this review, I am going to quote the Steppenwolf-provided synopsis of The Qualms and attempt to respond to the questions it posits. (My answers are in parentheses.) Here goes:
At a beachside apartment complex, a group of friends gathers for their regular evening of food, drink, drugs, and partner-swapping. When Chris and Kristy attempt to become the newest members, the evening does not go as planned. (You’re kidding.) The artichoke dip grows cold as the party devolves into a territorial battle over mating privileges. Does sex ruin everything? (Usually.) And what is the purpose of monogamy? (Tax breaks.) Bruce Norris’s comedy explores the eternal struggle for power, status, and getting laid.
There, in three words, I just answered two of The Qualms’s “big questions”, something the play itself fails to do in any amount of words. Perhaps that is because it has several more issues on its mind as well. They include, but are not limited to, (say them with me now): Race, Gender Equality, War, American Materialism, Homophobia, Religion, Obesity, Socioeconomic Status, World Poverty, and What In God’s Name Is That Guitar Doing On Stage If It’s Never Used.
The “group of friends” that playwright Bruce Norris has assembled to tackle all of this stuff whilst they swing include middle-aged dude-bro host Gary (Keith Kupferer) and his ditzy squeeze Teri (Kate Arrington), and their regulars: hotheaded BMW driver (I’m sure of it) Roger (David Pasquesi), his Caribbean girlfriend Regine (Karen Aldridge), boisterous Deb (Kristen Fitzgerald), and her boytoy Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall), who may or may not be actually gay. The newbies, of course, are Chris (Greg Stuhr), who is having some, y’know, “qualms” about the whole swapping thing, and his only slightly-more-game wife Kristy (Diane Davis).
So now I posit a question of my own: In your estimation, Veteran Theatregoer, what are the chances that all of these people will be at each other’s throats by, say, 45 minutes in? If your answer was “I would bet my life savings on it,” then get yourself to the nearest casino quickly. Because different people have different worldviews. And in theatre, everyone must express those worldviews as often and as artlessly as possible.
The chief cause of the evening not going as planned is (no spoiler alert) Chris. As he forms one inarticulate opinion after another (if you’re going to have characters arguing for 90 minutes, at least make them witty), he becomes the target of increasing abuse by the others. Most of it he has coming to him, because to call him a bull in a china shop would be to exaggerate the amount of destruction bulls in china shops cause.
Any other person, sane or insane, would have simply shut up, or better yet walked out the door long ago and never spoken to any of these people again. But Chris can’t do that, or we have no play. This is where theatre frankly fails as a medium. Because, unlike in a movie or TV show, you can’t go anywhere else. Everyone has to stay in this one room. Thus Norris must create inane reasons for him to stick around and cause ever more Drama and Conflict. He does, everything comes to a head, maybe a punch is thrown, and then everybody backs off, takes a breath, someone says a one-liner to cut the tension, and the process starts over again until the arbitrary end. There are far too many plays that do this, and far too many of them don’t do it well. Here’s one more.
I do at this point need to give props (that guitar maybe) to the talented and hardworking cast, who at least know where each of their characters stand and who land the punchlines that there are (and there are a few) with relish (artichoke dip?) and skill. And to the set designer. Please decorate my next apartment if I can afford you. But did I care who won all of these arguments? I did not. Did I care if this group’s fun was ruined forever? I did not. Did I care if this play ended in a Hamlet-style bloodbath? I think I would have preferred it.
Some people (many people, I guess) enjoy these types of issue-oriented plays, and some of them may get a kick out of The Qualms. Director Pam MacKinnon mostly keeps it in gear and keeps it moving, and it does fairly competently run down its checklist. But sheesh, what a checklist. Me, I go to the theatre to see stories, not debates. Especially if I haven’t been the slightest bit enlightened by them after.
Final directorial note: I dislike cleaning up after parties. I dislike watching people clean up after parties, onstage, for a full five, wordless, undramatic minutes, even more.
July 12, 2014
At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, call 312-335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org. tickets 420- $86, Tuesdays thru Sundays at 7:30 pm, matinees on Wednesdays at 2 pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 90 minutes without intermission, through August 31, 2014