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A CurtainUp Review
The Qualms

QUALM = an uneasy feeling or pang of conscience as to conduct; compunction.
The Qualms
Donna Lynne Champlin and Jeremy Shamos (Photo: Joan Marcus )
Exposing the questions and discomfort aroused by certain situations in what he calls "hypocritical liberals" is what drives most of Bruce Norris's plays. But, as he admitted in a 2011 interview with Gene Seymour of the Los Angeles Times, he includes himself in that segment of the population. Consequently his plays about unmasking that conflict within himself. In his new play The Qualms he does so through Chris, the character who's clearly his alter-ego— a hedge fund manager who turns into the party pooper at a gathering of a partner swapping or alternative lifestyle club.

So is this Norris's version of a contemporary sex farce? There are certainly enough doors in Todd Rosenthal's spacious set of a condomium apartment in a middle class section of an unspecified beach community for that genre. The people who gather there do indeed belong to an internet-affiliated sex club for couples interested in a non-conventional life style. The meetings are organized much like some book clubs: some chitchat, a potluck dinner, and then on to the book discussion. However, in The Qualms, the socializing is foreplay for fun and games on the air mattress in the "party room" set aside for this purpose.

But don't expect a lot of titillating sexual going on from the characters Norris has assembled. Their get-together actually does come off like an animated and increasingly contentious book club meeting. Instead we have a contentious sex club meeting with its swingers coming off more neurotic than erotic—, more stimulated by talking and arguing about sex than actually engaging in it. In other words, more tell than show. Even the arguments about sex tend to be in broad, general terms, from an observer's point of view.

Since it's tough to make sex on stage work, this is exactly the right setup for another Norris style black comedy. That means lots of his trademark caustic dialogue, sharpened with a satirical edge. In this case it's all designed to peel away at the contradictions in his characters' sexual attitudes and practices.

The Qualms falls short of being the satirical wow that Clybourne Park ( review ) and The Pain and the Itch ( review) were. It's one thing to focus on foreplay but the tameness of the few actual examples of the real stuff affects the potency of the entire enterprise. Still, Mr. Norris is in fine form in terms of applying his biting wit to these not very happy people and using their desperate grab at livelier lives and relationships to tackle all manner of social topics. Though this isn't the playwright's best work the cast is first-rate, especially Jeremy Shamos as the disruptive outsider. Pam MacKinnon's pacey direction is another asset.

The play begins pleasantly enough with just four members of the ensemble, the couple hosting the party and the newbies they met and recruited during a vacation: The hosts are Gary, a super talkative old-hippie (John Procaccino), and his considerably younger and bimbo-ish wife Teri (Kate Arrington). The newcomers are a nervously eager to please but full of questions Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and his quiet, pretty blonde wife Kristy (Sarah Goldberg). (Could those rhymed names be the playwright's sly way of telling us that both couples are compatible in name only?).

By the time the rest of the ensemble arrives Gary has indicated that he'd like to get to know Kristy better, but it's with Teri that she heads to the party room. It doesn't really matter wheter the women have simply gone off to enable Teri to give Kristy a more intense massage to heal her injured neck. What it does do is to establish that Chris is going to be the uncomfortable and discomforting outsider at this party. Without saying a word it's clear that this turn of events upsets him. There's also his comment on Gary's espousal of a non-exclusive marriage as natural (. . ."just cause something is natural, you know — doesnt make it good"). The club's membership roster is an authorial template for a composite profile of our increasingly diverse American population: Deb (Donna Lynne Champlin probably the most nuanced of all these "types") a fat and proud of it widow . . . Ken ( a deliciously swishy Andy Lucien), her beloved late husband's black and apparently bi-sexual reflexologist who's now her companion. . . Regine (Chinasa Ogbuagu),a tall, French speaking black woman with a taste for S&M. . Roger (Noah Emmerich), Regine's gruff, former army man partner.

The committed performances notwithstanding, the actors can do just so much with mostly rather sketchy characters. (Donna Lynne Champlin's Deb being the most nuanced of these "types" besides Shamos). Even the remarkable Shamos, who's fully inhabited portrayed an amazing range of characters, can't quite patch up a hole in Norris's script: It's hard to believe that Chris would ever be intrigued enough by Gary's sales pitch for the club to actually join up. The script notes that though this is his and Kristy's first meeting, they went through some sort of initiation process so that this isn't just an exploratory visit. Shamos couldn't be better in his segue from aim-to-please and be cool to mounting hostility that culminates with an explosive and hurtful interchange with Beth. But a jealousy situation with his wife does little to make this more plausible, especially since Kristy is never more than a cipher.

With its top drawer assemblage on stage and back stage creative talent, The Qualms is never boring. Sure, we all have our own qualms about sex and marital issues, but these stereotypical characters do litle to make us able to laugh at or better understand our own conflicting feeling and opinions.

The Qualms by Bruce Norris
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Cast: Kate Arrington (Teri), Donna Lynne Champlin (Deb), Noah Emmerich (Roger),Sarah Goldberg (Kristy), Julian Leong (Delivery Guy), Andy Lucien (Ken), Chinasa Ogbuagu (Regine), John Procaccino (Gary), Jeremy Shamos (Chris).
Sets: Todd Rosenthal
Costumes: Jessica Pabst
Lighting: Russell H. Champa
Sound: RicK Sims
Stage Manager: Cole R. Bonenberger
Running Time: Approx. 95 minutes
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater 416 West 42nd Street
From ; opening 6/14/15; closing 7/12/15
Tuesday & Wednesday at 7PM, Thursday, Friday & Saturday at 8PM, Saturday & Sunday at 2:30PM Sunday at 7:30PM. 5/22/15.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 6/11 press preview
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