Sunday, July 06, 2014

Bruce Norris' 'The Qualms' Shrewdly Uses Sex to Stimulate -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Qualms
a world premiere play by Bruce Norris
directed by Pam MacKinnon
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 31

It's only taken Steppenwolf staging eight Bruce Norris plays--of which I've now seen and enjoyed half--and his winning both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for Clybourne Park in order for me to primarily think of him as one of the world's premier contemporary playwrights and not most notably the brother of former MTV reporter John Norris.

Given the deftness Norris displays in his latest work--The Qualms--now in a world premiere production at Steppenwolf, his kinship will be rendered even more relatively trivial in relationship to my regard for his writing.

Perhaps empowered by the success and acclaim of Clybourne Park--though intervening London and New York premieres of The Low Road and Domesticated, respectively, seemingly garnered more middling reviews--Norris, now a Steppenwolf ensemble member, daringly utilizes a risqué scenario to garner ribald laughs while stimulating deeper consideration of myriad mentally-titillating topics.

Ostensibly, The Qualms is a comedy about a polyamorous community, embodied by a small group of partner-swapping friends who have seemingly successfully, um, enjoyed each other's company on several prior occasions.

So yes, it is a play predominantly about sex, though much more so the discussion of it rather than onstage depiction.

And certainly, there is a fair amount of frank conversation about sex itself, as an emotional act or simply a physical one, and about monogamy, as a choice, an obligation, an implausibility and even an anachronism. Simply on the surface level, The Qualms is rather engaging throughout its 90 minutes, with any requisite audience discomfiture or even disdain being part of the point.

But in centering much of the narrative around a recently married couple--Chris and Kristy, terrifically played by Greg Stuhr and Diane Davis--who are newcomers to this pseudo Meetup group for Swingers (my reference, not the play's; I don't know if such a Meetup group exists, but I didn't find any in a quick search), Norris' masterfully turns their qualms into a dissection that goes far beyond shared carnal knowledge.
Rehearsal photo by Joel Moorman; from

Through eight primary characters embodied by eight terrific actors under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, well beyond sex, monogamy and polyamorous communities, The Qualms broaches on power, psychology, insecurity, machismo, appearance, self-esteem, body image, status, attraction, love, friendship, male/female similarities & variances, competition, deviancy, freedom, open- and closed-mindedness, moral authority, judgment, relationships, recrimination, spite, revenge, homophobia, human nature, animal instincts, marriage, how our pasts shape our present and likely a host of other subtextual matters.

As the story opens--derived from Norris having seen a documentary called The Lifestyle about a polyamorous community and having "a complicated response to it"--Chris and Kristy are the first guests at the home of Gary and Teri, an unmarried couple played by a pair of actors I've often seen and enjoyed (Keith Kupferer and Kate Arrington). Gary seemingly represents the most stalwart and open aficionado of the group's raison d'etre and Arrington as Teri is sexy enough to be the focal point of Steppenwolf's marketing and program cover for The Qualms.

Subsequent to arrive are Regine (Karen Aldridge), Roger (David Pasquesi), Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall). I don't know if Norris' script specifies the skin color of these characters--within the context of a rather multifaceted play, it seems relatively immaterial that Regine and Ken are played by African-Americans--but Deb is clearly referenced as a heavy-set woman.

Also left unstated is how any of the returning participants paired (or more) up on prior "meetings" of the group.

Rehearsal photo by Joel Moorman; from
But the apprehension of the newbies--most acutely Chris--and the factors that brought him and Kristy to this party despite it, drives most of escalation of the play's action and tension, leading to considerable introspection and soul-baring.

While engrossing, mining the characters' psychology somewhat subverts what had been a well-balanced discourse on polyamorous proclivities, as it seems to suggest that non-traditional sexual mores go hand-in-hand with a damaged psyche of some sort.

Also detracting from the onstage debate--and its myriad metaphors--was an audience member who felt the need to clap loudly as Chris argued that meaningless sex is at aberrant odds with meaningful relationships.

I certainly appreciate that Norris' intentionally-provocative piece will stimulate strong reactions--and, conceivably, uncomfortable drives home--but being disruptive isn't an appropriate response, especially when one's own qualms can be openly raised at the post-show discussion Steppenwolf holds after every performance (I attended and participated in a valuable one).

If the clapping lady, or you, don't feel agreeable to the subject matter of this one-act play, it would seem the answer--very much in keeping with the underlying themes--might be to leave, not attend in the first place or to listen, tolerate and think.

As conveyed onstage by Pasquesi--who feels like a powder keg far too underutilized--there is a dichotomy in the concept of freedom as, to paraphrase, some people feel that freedom means the ability to do whatever they want (if not to the point of physically harming others) while others view freedom as enabling their right to tell others what they can and cannot do.

If nothing else, this probing play--with, at risk of sounding crudely prurient, attractive actresses in various states of undress--should cause viewers to consider the perspectives and motivations of those with predilections at odds with their own.

And to applaud--after listening to some dialogue they agree with and some they don't--at the end.

Whatever one's personal convictions, the exemplary actors presenting this fine play to the public for the first time--amidst an impressive set designed by Todd Rosenthal--deserve to be heard. I have no significant qualms with The Qualms, and highly recommend it to anyone who can appreciate thought-provoking dramady without being compelled to participate in inappropriate behavior.

Such as rudeness or disrespect. 


elsiekate said...

yes, regine and ken need to be played by black actors. for example, at one point regine asks chris if he's ever slept with a black woman. and deb refers to ken as her nubian sex god. there are probably other examples that i've forgotten....

Seth Arkin said...

Nice catch, you're right about those references. And I know Regine referred to her country of origin (as she had an accent), but I couldn't recall what it was. However, it seems many of the other characters could be played by actors of any ethnicity.