THE QUALMS: Let’s Tryst Again Like We Did Last Summer

Qualms, The
Playwrights Horizons/Mainstage Theater

Cast List:
Kate Arrington 
Donna Lynne Champlin 
Noah Emmerich 
Sarah Goldberg 
Julian Leong 
Andy Lucien
Chinasa Ogbuagu
John Procaccino
Jeremy Shamos

Production Credits:
Pam MacKinnon (director)
Todd Rosenthal (scenic design)
Jessica Pabst (costume design)
Russell H. Champa (lighting design)
Rich Sims (sound design)

Other Credits:
Written by: Bruce Norris

The daisy chain is as strong as its weakest link.

So at the sex party where everyone else is rarin’ to go, newlywed Chris isn’t.

What’s a just-married man doing at an orgy, anyway? It all started when Chris’ new wife Kristy had lunch with a former lover a few weeks ago. She sensed that the meeting made Chris jealous, but he waved away that charge as ridiculous.

And to prove it, here they are at the not-quite-beachfront condo of Gary and Teri, who are, to use a term not often heard since the days of Plato’s Retreat, swingers. Two other couples are on their way, too, all literally for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Now Chris will staunchly show his wife that he’s no green-eyed monster.

His eyes stay brown, but Chris becomes quite a monster before this 100-minute play finishes. Bruce Norris, most famous for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, has called this new play The Qualms. Had he called it Chris’ Qualms, he would have been more accurate, because everyone else is ready to let the good times roll in bed.

And that even includes Kristy.

No, this certainly isn’t Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party.

For fifty-five minutes, Jeremy Shamos gives Chris an affable face that shows he seems to agree with all the sex talk while letting the audience know he doesn’t concur at all. But as good as Shamos is in playing subtle, he’s got the chops to roar when Chris explodes and tells us what’s really on his mind. You’ve heard of Porgy and Bess? This is Orgy and Mess. The Qualms almost serves as a cautionary tale: “Swingers, don’t let this happen to you. Think carefully when making up your guest list to your upcoming debauch.”

“Some of us didn’t come here for the conversation” drone Regine, a lofty European (tartly played by Chinasa Ogbuagu). Still, the talk continues, although the sexual politics morph into a genuinely political discussion.

None of this much interests good-time girl Deb. Donna Lynne Champlin portrays her as a happy-go-lucky heavy-set woman who convinced herself long ago that having “more to love” means that she has more to give, too. But little has to happen to make her walls of defense come tumbling down. Champlin drives this journey with the skill of an Indianapolis Speedway racer.

Is Ken, the man Deb brought, gay? Chris certainly thinks so. And if appearances meant anything – and we’ve learned that they don’t even if Chris hasn’t – yes, Ken “seems” gay. Andy Lucien keeps his cards close to his semi-exposed chest.

John Procaccino is Gary, the host with the most to say. The actor captures how profound Gary thinks he is for embellishing the famous marital cliché that “It’s just a piece of paper” by stating “A ring is just a piece of metal.”

Sarah Goldberg is Kristy, who has a matter-of-fact demeanor for most of the night – and that includes her being at home with all the words and deeds on display. We see that she sensed all along that her husband was not going to be able to rise to the occasion (in any way). “Go out on a limb,” she seems to be telegraphing, “but I’ll instead go into the bedroom again and again.”

The audience offered gales of laughter, but one can never tell at a play that deals frankly with sex if theatergoers are finding the situation funny or if they deem it ridiculous. Are their fuses blown by hearing conversations they’ve never had or by frank discussions they wouldn’t dream of conducting?

Or in fact have they put these issues on the table or even the bedroom with their spouses and friends? Are they laughing at themselves as they remember their own ill-fated attempts at multiple partners? Or are they now guffawing loudly to mislead the strangers sitting next to them that they’re too upright for any of this when in all honesty they’re only uptight for any of this? Maybe Norris chose The Qualms and not Chris’ Qualms to refer to our own anxieties, too.

We’ll never know, but what we do know is that The Qualms is provocative theater, especially in this take-no-prisoners production by expert director Pam McKinnon. There can’t be many plays where the denouement involves three minutes – maybe five, maybe more – where not a word is spoken.

Yes, complete silence.

Not a word.

And yet, what we find ourselves doing is filling in the blanks that Norris has provided us. We spend the time inferring what’s going on in the eight characters’ minds. This pause in the action allows us, miraculously enough, to feel sorry for everyone.

The conversation does resume with a good deal of frank talk. Gary has a particularly intriguing six-degrees-of-separation analogy. Then comes perhaps the most-creative-ever break of the fourth wall (when actors step out of character and address the audience).

Norris still has one last smart idea in store that few if any theatergoers will see coming. It brings the play to a strangely satisfying conclusion. Considering all that’s gone before, this is not only surprising, but amazing.

It isn’t, however, unbelievable, a charge that’s been leveled against another aspect of The Qualms since it started previews. Many theatergoers haven’t been able to swallow that straight-arrow Chris would get himself into this difficult situation in the first place. Ah, but many of us have learned from bitter experiences that the sexual fantasies we’ve had in our heads – and then took out to be put in practice — should have remained there.

Some of us have gone to such an event and realized before we took even a single love bite that we’d bitten off more than we could chew. Chris wants to think – nay, needs to believe – that he’s super-sophisticated. That’s believable, although all that happens is, as Shamos expertly shows us, Chris becomes years older in a matter of minutes.

By the way, note the names of the newlywed couple. Chris. Kristy. Was the current governor of New Jersey on the playwright’s mind?

Probably not. Even the thought of him on the scene of an orgy dampens a sexually-charged atmosphere quicker than Norris’ flummoxed character.