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The Qualms

Pulitzer winner Bruce Norris takes on the perils of polyamory.

Kate Arrington as Teri, Greg Stuhr as Chris, and Diane Davis as Kristy in the world premiere of Bruce Norris' The Qualms, directed by Pam MacKinnon, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
(© Michael Brosilow)

Crack open a Bruce Norris play and you'll find a gathering of characters whose filters have failed them. The Pulitzer Prize-winning (Clybourne Park) playwright has a disturbing gift for giving voice to things one simply does not say out loud. With The Qualms, Norris pulls back the veneer like a scab being ripped off a deep wound. The result is a savagely funny and at times unexpectedly moving foray into the world of polyamory.

The action takes place at the breezy-luxe beach house of Gary (Keith Kupferer) and Teri (Kate Arrington) where a group of friends (who formed a small, but surprisingly organized club) gather for libidinous play dates — where there are dues at the beginning of the month, and rules like 20 minutes in the party room for couples, 30 minutes for threesomes. However, it's not long before the gathering implodes into a melee of defensive insults and condom-throwing. Not even the nebulizer Gary has set up to detoxify the marijuana smoke can neutralize this charged atmosphere.

The first guests to arrive are Chris, a banker (Greg Stuhr), and his wife, Kristy (Diane Davis). They're newbies to the swingers scene, having met Gary and Teri during a Cabo vacation. Chris and Kristy's presence there isn't entirely plausible — Gary explains that they decided to take the plunge as a sort of marriage therapy after Kristy had lunch with an old flame. Gary seems game for about five seconds — at which point the seething jealous insecurity about his wife's assignation comes toxically roiling to the surface.

The other foursome ready to play includes the recently widowed Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and her boyfriend, Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall), as well as alpha male Gulf War veteran Roger (David Pasquesi) and his drop-dead-gorgeous French partner Regine (Karen Aldridge). Much of the provocative beauty — and conflict — within The Qualms comes from the fact that the players all look like people you might actually meet as opposed to the perfect creatures you might encounter in a porn flick.

Newcomer Chris reveals his attitudes toward gender and sex early on. His feelings are rooted in possessiveness, insecurity, and sexism spiced with homophobia and moral superiority. He's alternately sputtering with rage because no one wants to drink the very expensive wine he's brought and because he thinks everybody else in the room is morally inferior, unattractive, and/or just plain delusional about the emotional fallout from sexual sharing. Stuhr is fantastic in this role, making you want to slap the self-righteousness right off his balding pate.

Chris' chief antagonist, Roger, is as volatile as he is supremely intelligent. Pasquesi creates a character that unleashes whipsmart venom to illuminate his brainpower, something that greatly intensifies his already intense physical charisma. Fitzgerald's Deb is also a lightning-rod presence, a vivacious, outgoing charmer whose gale-force personality sweeps nearly everyone in her orbit. It's a killer performance that has Fitzgerald moving from unstoppable confidence to teary-eyed vulnerability, and back with a joyous, full-throttle defiance that makes the audience laugh and want to cheer for her.

Our hosts Gary and Teri make similarly strong impressions. Kupferer brings a genuine everyman to Gary, creating a character who is fervently proud of his place in "the lifestyle" and who has an award-winning debater's ability to defend it. Arrington instills Teri with sweetness, light, and a bubble-brained earnestness that masks a bone-deep sadness left over from a troubled, sex-fueled past. As Regine, Aldridge is a bombshell in stilettos, a woman who knows a thing or two about S&M and isn't afraid to brandish that knowledge like a whip. As for Stovall, he serves up a knife-sharp ability to cut down those who would cast aspersions on his lady or his lifestyle.

There's no explicit sex in The Qualms, or even nudity for that matter. Instead, this octet of swingers spends the 90-minute piece in heated discussions about the true nature of human sexuality, politics, and the proper way to barbeque pork loin. The utter lack of nakedness and the dominance of debate in a play about what Gary refers to as "the lifestyle" isn't as off-putting as it could be. That's because Norris' dialogue is smart, howlingly funny, and provocative — and because Pam MacKinnon's direction pulls such pitch-perfect performances from her ensemble. These people might spend more time pontificating than fornicating, but those pontifications are as fascinating as they are acidly hilarious.

The Qualms needs less heated discussion and more heated action to reach the dizzying levels of Norris' best work (Clybourne Park, The Pain and the Itch). But it's a wildly entertaining and stimulating foray into a world in which most of us are not terribly familiar. If the piece makes you squirm, you're not alone. It delivers everything you've always wanted to know about "the lifestyle," but were afraid to ask.