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The Qualms Review: An Orgy That Isn’t

TheQualms2“I’m not that kind of person,” Chris (Jeremy Shamos) says right before the orgy is set to begin, in “The Qualms,” the latest comedy by Bruce Norris. What Chris means is he is not the kind of person that Roger (Noah Emmerich) has just described — the kind of person for whom freedom means taking away other people’s freedoms, the kind who thinks: “If you have your freedom, I can’t enjoy my freedom.”

Chris doesn’t want to take away the freedom of the other swinging couples who have gathered in this beachfront condo, but still….he has qualms.

Chris’s qualms more or less drive the (in)action of “The Qualms,” which has now opened at Playwrights Horizons, the original home of the playwright’s Pulitzer-winning “Clybourne Park,” the best-known of his pointed plays. Chris and his wife Kristy (Sarah Goldberg) are the only newcomers among the eight middle class, mostly middle aged couples who have gathered for some extramarital recreation. If this sounds like a sex comedy from the 1960’s, there are several clues that this is supposed to be taking place now, during the 21st century – the characters use cell phones, and they do little more than talk.

The very first thing we hear is an argument between Chris and the host of the evening, Gary (John Proccacino), about marriage, monogamy and materialism – Gary maintaining that the first pointlessly enforces the second but is really designed to promote the third. Chris disagrees. It’s the first of many mini-debates about American culture and mores.

That Gary and Teri’s home doesn’t turn into Plato’s Home-style Retreat seems largely Chris’s fault; he gets increasingly obstructionist and tilts towards ugly.

Is he nervous? Is he jealous? Does he morally disapprove? Then what’s he doing there in the first place?

If the motivation for Chris’ presence, as eventually explained, is both unlikely and lame, I am going to give the playwright the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he’s making a larger point here. (The clue is right in the title.) Ken (Andy Lucien) the most attractive man and least sociable regular at the gathering, may be Norris’ mouthpiece when he rants at some length that Americans are afraid of sex, which explains so many of our internal contradictions – highest church attendance and highest rate of pornography consumption, for example – an internalized conflict that makes us violent: “We’d prefer death,” Ken says.

“And money,” Gary adds.

“Death and money and violence,” Ken concludes.

This is not an original observation, granted, but Norris seems to be applying this theme to his essentially decent characters, each subtly damaged in typically American ways. He also milks it for humor. I suspect he is playing on the audience’s internal contradictions as well– our qualms about sex (including seeing sex on stage) versus our yearning for a little titillation. But be forewarned: Compared to an explicit play like Thomas Bradshaw’s Intimacy, The Qualms might as well be The Lion King

Director Pam MacKinnon, who has collaborated with Norris before, has assembled a first-rate ensemble , led by Jeremy Shamos, who has cornered the market lately on playing the mildly to moderately insufferable. Donna Lynne Champlin is another standout as Deb, zaftig and happily vulgar, with some of the funniest lines, and also some touching moments. Kate Arrington as Gary’s wife Teri does a dignified ditzy, suggesting that the world would be better off if human males acted more like the chimp-like Bonobos, “who resolve conflict through sex instead of aggression…Like if all the Israelis and the Pakistanis had to have sex with each other?”

“Palestinians,” Chris corrects.

“Think about it,” Teri says.

(This reference to an animal is something of a Norris motif — and explains the in-your-face Playbill cover for the show, although Norris established it far more obviously in his previous Domesticated, about a political sex scandal.)

It is a reflection on MacKinnon’s increasingly expert pacing in The Qualms that one of the high points of the play is the visit, after an especially chaotic confrontation, by a teenage delivery guy (spot-on Julian Leong) He says not a word, but his deadpan look is all we need to view the scene anew, and find it funnier than it probably deserves to be.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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