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Having never actually attended a swingers’ party, I can only hope that they’re more fun than the one depicted in The Qualms. In this latest dark comedy from Bruce Norris, the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Clybourne Park, sex takes a decided back seat to heated discussions about marriage, monogamy, the morality of pornography, whether the Gulf War was actually a war and the technical difference between democracies and republics. It’s no wonder that the bowl of condoms on the coffee table sits untouched like the elephant in the room.
The play, originally seen last year at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, begins with married couple Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and Kristy (Sarah Goldberg) arriving at the well-appointed suburban home of Gary (John Proccaccino) and Teri (Kate Arrington). The free-spirited hosts, who met their guests during a Mexican vacation, are eager to introduce the new recruits to “the lifestyle,” after a dinner of barbecued pork loin.
Arriving later for the occasion are the zaftig, widowed Deb (Donna Lynne Champlin), her African-American boyfriend Ken (Andy Lucien), war veteran Roger (Noah Emmerich of FX’s The Americans) and his exotic, Martinique-born wife Regine (Chinasa Ogbuagu), the latter sporting fancy silk stockings.
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It soon becomes apparent that the uptight Chris, who apparently decided to take the polyamory plunge after learning of Kristy’s secret lunch with an ex-boyfriend, is less than enthusiastic about his decision. She, on the other hand, seems quite willing, accepting a sensual neck massage from Teri and quickly changing into a bathrobe.
With mojitos flowing, Gary firing up the marijuana nebulizer and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” blaring on the stereo, the party seems on the verge of getting started. But Chris reacts badly when Regine, sitting on his lap, proceeds to deliver a series of slaps to his face. He’s equally unresponsive to Deb, who after raving about his dimples tells him, “You say the word and Mama Deb will rock you like a hurricane.”
Things go downhill from there as Chris becomes increasingly belligerent, at one point storming out of the house only to return again and again to direct more insults at the others, including questioning Ken’s sexuality. By the time the evening is over, violence has broken out, furniture has been overturned and, with the exception of one discreetly staged sex act, nobody has gotten what they came for.
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The play well displays Norris’ gifts for acerbic comic dialogue and pungent social satire. The characters, although verging on stereotypes, are amusingly drawn, their heated interactions eliciting laughs and gasps in equal measure.
But the evening eventually winds up spinning its wheels, becoming repetitive in its themes and feeling contrived in its depiction of Chris constantly upping the emotionally volatile ante. By the time it’s over, the characters wind up dejected and exhausted, feelings that may well be shared by the audience.
Under the expert direction of Pam MacKinnon, who orchestrated similar domestic mayhem in the recent Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the ensemble deliver terrific comic turns. Shamos (seen in the brief but memorable role of the actor felled by a lighting rig in Birdman) is the standout, expertly managing the delicate balancing act of making his character both relatable and ultimately obnoxious. But every performance feels fully lived-in, from Procaccino’s laid-back, aging hipster to Champlin’s seemingly self-possessed but actually vulnerable plus-sized woman to Emmerich’s macho aggressor.
There’s also a marvelously theatrical moment towards the end when Gary delivers a monologue about how large groups of people are sexually connected, followed by the fourth wall being broken to hilarious effect. In that one moment, at least, any qualms about The Qualms disappear.
Cast: John Procaccino, Kate Arrington, Jeremy Shamos, Sarah Goldberg, Donna Lynne Champlin, Andy Lucien, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Noah Emmerich, Julian Leong
Playwright: Bruce Norris
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Russell H. Champa
Sound designer: Rick Sims
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
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