Bruce Norris sets his latest play at a spouse-swapping party that balloons out of control.
Few playwrights know how to build an argument to a nuclear conclusion better than Bruce Norris. The Pulitzer- and Tony-winning dramatist behind Clybourne Park and The Pain and the Itch has made it his specialty to push the toxicity of America's class-consciousness way beyond its breaking point, with devastating results for his characters that provoke sharp intakes of breath from his audiences. In his latest dark comedy, The Qualms, Norris is at it again. But this time, the subject is S-E-X.
The scathing 90-minute one-act, now running at Playwrights Horizons after a recent Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, is set in a typical beachfront condo in the Midwest, which we very quickly learn is the site of a party for swingers. Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and Kristy (Sarah Goldberg) are new to the motley group, having become intrigued by the idea after a chance meeting months earlier with partner-swappers Gary (John Procaccino) and Teri (Kate Arrington).
"The Lifestyle," as it's called, seems pretty rad at first: Show up, bring some food, flirt with then bed anyone in the room. But as more guests arrive, a calm, rational evening of free, non-monogamous love detonates into a struggle for power and a vicious assault on everything they hold dear.
If Clybourne Park was an exploration of how incapable we are at talking about race, The Qualms explores how similarly impossible it is for adults not only to discuss the nature of sex, but to actually commit, whether to a marriage or to a quickie. Yet, for a play whose subject is copulation, there's not much actual hanky-panky going on. Despite the fruit bowl full of condoms on the bookcase, you never actually get the impression that intercourse is even a possibility for any of these people, who've come for a good time but seem more content on arguing than shtupping.
The characters may not be having the fun they so desire, but we on the other side of the invisible fourth wall are having a ribald one. Even without a crucial element of clarity, The Qualms has a lot going for it, namely Norris' razor-sharp dialogue, laden with lines that explode into laughter, and a real doozy of a production staged by his frequent directorial collaborator, Pam MacKinnon.
"Perfect" doesn't even begin to describe how utterly extraordinary MacKinnon's cast is. In fact, the nine performers are a stunning example of how to work as an ensemble, from the largest role to the smallest. There are a few standouts, of course. Kate Arrington is a downright delight as the dippy Teri, whose line delivery and 11th-hour eruption of temper are works of art. Donna Lynne Champlin is surprisingly moving as Deb, the chunky widow who arrives at the party with her androgynous new partner, Ken, faultlessly played by Andy Lucien. But most of all, the play belongs to Shamos, an actor whose ability to turn from a seemingly nice — if repressed — middle-aged man to unconscionable jerk within a single line of text is unrivaled by his peers.
MacKinnon's creative team is also working at the top of their game. The spacious beachfront rental, with beige walls and comfortable furniture, is expertly brought to life by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, with Russell H. Champa aiding the milieu by subtly darkening the lights as time goes on. Costume designer Jessica Pabst keeps the outfits light and airy as the waves crash outside (Rick Sims is the sound designer). Though it's hard not to wish it were sexier, The Qualms ends up a potent experience, warts and all.