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Chicago by John Olson

The Qualms
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's reviews of Brigadoon and This Is Our Youth


Karen Aldridge, Keith Kupferer, Kate Arrington, Greg Stuhr, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis
It seems to me that some time ago I read a statement that sex may be a critical element in keeping humans civil. The thought was that if we weren't attracted to other humans, would we simply just compete with each other for resources like food and shelter? I can't seem to find a source for that thesis but in Googling to search for it I found plenty of other theses about the relationship of sex to civilization, so it's probably been posited somewhere before. Bruce Norris explains something like that idea in his latest satirical play about pretenses and hypocrisies of affluent Americans. His cast of characters in The Qualms are middle-aged southern Californians who have gathered at the home of Gary (Keith Kupferer) and Teri (Kate Arrington) for one of their monthly mate-swapping parties. Todd Rosenthal's beach-house set and a quip about some poor friends back in the Midwest suffering bad weather make it clear the action is occurring in some corner of Los Angeles—maybe Malibu? The couple has food, music, wine and weed—everything they need to get the senses flowing and the good times rolling. First, though, they have to put the newcomers at ease. The new couple is Chris and Kristi, a pair Gary and Teri met on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, and this being the first time these newcomers have attended such a party, they're understandably nervous.

At first, husband Chris (Greg Stuhr) seems a little more ready for the adventure, especially when the attractive Teri comes on to him. As it turns out, Teri gets Kristy (Diane Davis) loosened up first. This begins as a literal loosening though massage but turns into a figurative loosening as well. Chris tries to be comfortable with the idea of his wife being intimate with another woman, but we soon see that he is not quite ready for this whole adventure of wife-swapping. The other guests arrive: the full-figured Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and her paramour, the effeminate and affected man Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall); and the very continental Frenchwoman Regine (Karen Aldridge) and her acerbic husband Roger (David Pasquesi). Three of these four are initially all smiles and kisses—seemingly happy to see each other and quite solicitous of the newcomers, but the sharp-tongued Roger soon goads Chris into conflict. Roger baits Chris with taunts about his income level and manliness. Chris, unsure of the idea of a wife-swapping party in the first place and not sexually attracted to anyone other than Teri, loses all his pretensions of civility and fights back ferociously.

The conflict escalates to eventually involve all eight partiers. As the battles ensue, more is revealed about these people—what's going on in the current marriages, what happened in their previous marriages and even in their youth and young adulthood. By the end of this 90-minute intermissionless party, Norris has made a statement about the true nature of intimacy and the twisted ways these people seek it out. True to form, Norris's ear for the speech of this societal segment is keen and director Pam McKinnon and cast capture the rhythms and physicality of these well-to-do Angelinos quite accurately, I'd guess. He leaves room for interpretation of the larger themes underlying the action and to his credit, he lets us decide what to make of this all without hammering home any messages.

Though Norris is a funny and fearless writer, this play risks falling into a formulaic trap. The conceit of well-off adults gathering for a sociable, civilized occasion that deteriorates into primal conflict looks and feels a lot like the second act of his Clybourne Park and even more like Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage but with four couples instead of Reza's two. Thanks to Norris's wit and the sharp, funny portrayals by McKinnon's cast, The Qualms is an entertaining hour and a half; but the familiarity of its structure—even with the potentially titillating setting of a mate-swapping party—keeps it from being a must-see.

The Qualms will play Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre at 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago through August 31, 2014. For ticket information, visit www.Steppenwolf.org, call 312-335-1650 or visit the box office.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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