Pulitzer-winning playwright-provocateur Bruce Norris (“Clybourne Park,” “The Pain and the Itch”) has proven himself an expert at depicting American middle class hypocrisy, exposing characters’ true convictions as contradictory to the beliefs they would prefer to espouse. There’s a lot more espousing than exposing in his newest work “The Qualms,” which puts an investment banker and his wife at a “polyamorous” swingers party, where the banker soon begins manifesting his sexual repression and conventional views. In the hands of director Pam MacKinnon and a consistently deft ensemble at Chicago’s Steppenwolf, plenty of amusement ensues from the bawdy dialogue, but it’s all kept a very safe distance from anything insightfully discomfiting. And, for a Norris play, that’s a bit shocking.
The banker Chris (Greg Stuhr) and wife Kristy (Diane Davis) are the first to arrive at the beach home of Gary (Keith Kupferer) and Teri (Kate Arrington). Gary and Chris had met on vacation and bonded over scuba diving, where Gary undoubtedly proudly revealed his commitment to what he calls “the lifestyle.” He also thinks that Kristy has really sexy legs. So does Teri. And, after all, Gary asks, when did people decide that monogamy was supposed to be the norm? To which Teri politely chimes in, “How long did it take you to drive down?”
It’s actually among the funniest lines of the play. Norris is always at his best when characters are doing everything they can to avoid talking about what’s happening in the scene, but that’s pretty rare here. As the characters enter and begin discussing social sexual norms, mostly with Chris, and mostly leading up to argumentation, the dialogue, witty and clever though it is, seems an obstacle to getting on with what everyone supposedly came to do.
In addition to the hosts and the newcomers, we’re introduced to Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald), overweight and occasionally overbearing, who was initiated into open sex by her late, much-older husband, who apparently had a penis others deemed “anatomically impossible.” There’s also her African-American lover Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall), with a stereotypically gay strut (but hold your assumptions, please, even if you have them). The last arrivals are Regine (Karen Aldridge), originally from Martinique, who has a particular take on sex, submissiveness, and the male ego, and her live-out lover, Gulf War veteran and avowed libertarian Roger (David Pasquesi), who seems perpetually dissatisfied with both the alcohol selection and with Chris, but certainly not Kristy.
Other than Chris, Deb is the only character who has dimensions, and in Fitzgerald’s strong, likable turn she becomes the victim of Chris’s uncanny ability to be incessantly judgmental while insisting he really isn’t. Finally he just stops trying to withhold his conservative views, which don’t seem particularly any more believable that the ones he pretended to have in the first place.
The play never brings to dramatic life the thematic conflicts at play: What is human sexual nature, if there is such a thing? For all of Norris’s talk, he just isn’t quite willing to take the audience into dangerous territory — there are no sex scenes, not even a touch of nudity. There’s a single brief encounter with just the gentle idea of S&M, but nothing that theatrically forces the audience to confront their own issues. Instead we just get to enjoy watching Chris squirm, explode and be rejected; the fact that he’s in private equity almost seems intended to make it even more enjoyable, unless Norris assumes everyone in the audience is in private equity.
“The Qualms” really is funny, particularly the first half of the play, before it turns fake-serious and everyone starts to seem as if they’ve been impacted by the way the argument has exploded and feel obligated to make personal confessions. But a Norris play where sex and power and privilege are the topics discussed seems a bit like a Disney film where fish converse mostly about the water, or a Shakespeare play where the primary subject is the beauty of iambic pentameter.
“The Qualms” is lined up for a New York run in spring 2015.