Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Bruce Norris. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Polyamory may be less socially accepted than monogamy, but is it any more or less ethically acceptable? Bruce Norris’s new argument billed as a comedy teases that question out to some talky lengths.
The Qualms takes place at a meeting of a California swingers’ club, where newlyweds and new recruits Chris (Greg Stuhr) and Kristy (Diane Davis) are testing the waters. The pair met organizers Gary (Keith Kupferer) and Teri (Kate Arrington), at whose beachside apartment the gathering takes place, while on vacation in Cabo; now Chris, reeling from a small perceived betrayal and wanting to prove himself less jealous and uptight than he clearly is, has convinced his wife and himself that they should check out Gary and Teri’s “scene.”
For a partner-swapping party, though, no one seems very eager to get down to business. As two more couples arrive—brazen real-estate broker Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and her arch companion, Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall), as well as the cocky Roger (David Pasquesi) and his Caribbean-born partner, Regine (Karen Aldridge)—everyone largely ignores the bowl of condoms on the coffee table in favor of chattering, pointed discussions of sexuality, possession and power. Chris, whose growing discomfort manifests as both a crippling sexual insecurity (when Regine seductively asks if he’d like to kiss her, he replies, “Potentially?”) and an inverse increase in moralistic surety: The more uncomfortable he gets, the more certain he is that he’s in the right.
Roger and Ken immediately sense Chris’s underlying disapproval and start to needle him, but it’s Chris’s own inability to let go of being right, along with his increasing resentment of Kristy’s comfort in this environment, that egg him on to deliver the party’s killing blow with a shockingly cruel remark to the generous, gregarious Deb.
Norris can seem more interested in his characters as lines of reasoning rather than fully drawn human beings. When one of them finally suggests that people with such tenaciously conservative points-of-view about sexuality as Chris does probably shouldn’t come to a swingers’ party, you think, No duh, and it’s hard to buy that they would. The playwright’s mocking of certain status-obsessed tropes (Roger’s exasperation at the absence of Cachaça in Gary’s bar, for instance) are beginning to feel like tropes themselves, and Norris isn’t immune to certain playwriting clichés—if I never see another character deliver an unprompted but clearly pertinent story from her past, followed by “I don’t know why I just said that,” I’ll be okay.
But what director Pam MacKinnon and her heavily stacked cast do to fill out these lightly sketched characters is practically heroic. Stovall, given the wispiest of the play’s eight main roles, makes a meal of it with Ken’s every reaction, and Fitzgerald kills Deb’s vulnerable-steamroller personality. Arrington absolutely nails a long monologue recounting Teri’s sexual history that’s equal parts wistful and wince-inducing. Every comic beat lands just right, and MacKinnon never shies away from holding an awkward moment. Still, it’d be nice if all this talk about pleasures of the flesh could be fleshed out with more satisfaction.