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The Qualms

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Chinasa Ogbuagu, Sarah Goldberg, Jeremy Shamos, and Donna Lynne Champlin
Photo by Joan Marcus

Taboos do not last long around Bruce Norris. His previous theatrical takedowns of them with respect to politics (The Pain and the Itch) and race (the Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park) have delighted in detonating illusions of niceties with searing blasts of reality that remind us of a terrifying, intolerant world forever peering at us from the shadows. So it's not that surprising that with his new play at Playwrights Horizons, The Qualms, Norris takes on perhaps the thorniest, touchiest, and feeliest of the issues that define the American outlook: sex.

Not just any sex, mind you, but the communal, free-flowing kind. Polyamory is an appropriate technical term for what's practiced behind the doors of the sunny, comfy beachfront condo on view here (the enveloping set is by Todd Rosenthal): We learn early on that Gary and Teri (John Procaccino and Kate Arrington) are hosting a meeting of a group of couples that get together every month to share themselves with each other, in whatever combinations they like, with the understanding that they'll all eventually go home with their original partners.

Sensible? If you're in "the lifestyle," sure, and the process doesn't bother Gary and Teri, the earthy Deb (Donna Lynne Champlin) and her flamboyant (and much younger) guest Ken (Andy Lucien), or the Gallic-exotic Regine (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and her matter-of-fact husband Roger (Noah Emmerich). But for Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and his wife Kristy (Sarah Goldberg), things are not quite so automatic. This is their first time in attendance, and understanding the rules—and to what degree, if any, they can be bent and broken—does not come easily.

Traditionally rigid notions of connubial commitment may not be in full force here, but the feelings behind them are. How Chris and Kristy deal with them (something that's not easy, given the rocky history between them that's only gradually revealed), when facing and facing off with people who are considerably freer with their feelings and their bodies, makes an ideal launching pad for Norris to burrow into classical American attitudes about sex, and how they affect all of our other dealings with each other. (You may be guessing that more happens, and indeed it does, but to describe many more specifics would be barreling into spoiler territory.)

Norris does this with his typically zesty, take-no-prisoners dialogue that's not afraid to challenge or forward any prevailing ideas. ("The most important political decision you make in your life is the decision who to sleep with," Regine says at one point; a subsequent discussion ponders, at length, who's really being exploited in porn movies.) Despite his subject matter and language being relentlessly adult, he and director Pam MacKinnon, who is likewise working at the top of her formidable form, keep their rendering sparklingly free of nudity or otherwise explicit activity that might detract from the play. And because the characters are so sharply defined and vibrantly performed, there's a boisterous texture that elevates even the most jejune interactions to true fireworks fodder.

It's especially difficult to resist Deb, whose motherly and insatiably erotic qualities Champlin masterfully melds into a single, piercingly hilarious personality, albeit one that can also yank at your heartstrings when required. (The play's best exchange occurs between the do-anything Deb and the icily reluctant Chris.) But though each performer similarly skirts the edges of quirkiness, none approaches caricature, and that can't be easy for Lucien (Ken is of, shall we say, uncertain sexuality), Emmerich (Roger is a serious man's man), or Arrington (tasked with delivering a pointed personal-history monologue that flirts openly with parody). Everyone, however, makes it look effortless, even Julian Leong, who has no lines as a delivery boy who shows up at the worst possible moment, but earns show-stopping laughs with his unaffected drinking in of the situation around him.

For all that's so right about The Qualms, I had, well, one enormous qualm with it. Superb as Shamos is playing the outsider trying to will himself into a new reality, it's simply impossible to believe that Chris, as written, would ever find himself in this situation. An excuse is given for why Chris wanted to attend the party, but Norris devotes nearly the entire second half of the show to painting him as a very different type of man altogether. Some elements of this characterization are necessary for the action to move (if everyone were instantly, perfectly comfortable, there would be no conflict), but Norris goes so overboard that Chris becomes someone who would never be caught dead at such a gathering, and at that point the credibility of the character and the play dissolve entirely.

This is a rare misstep for Norris, whose own sense of boundaries, and how far they can (and should) be pushed in plays like this, has until now been inerrant. Luckily, the unforgiving Norris of The Pain and the Itch and Clybourne Park is still in firm evidence throughout The Qualms, so it remains winning, compelling, and necessary, even though it ultimately fails to thoroughly convince. Even so, it furthers a worthwhile message. There are no perfect plays, just as there are no perfect people, and being the wrong kind of judgmental toward anyone or anything is likely to cause more problems than it solves. Instead, just let yourself go. The rewards here are great, even if Norris's own overeagerness makes you won't be able to give yourself over completely.

The Qualms
Through July 12
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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