Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through August 31
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic Bruce Norris won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for “Clybourne Park,” but the Steppenwolf Theatre world premiere of “The Qualms,” his latest, isn’t very satisfying as a play. Four couples gather for a party at an apartment in an upscale beachside complex. They eat, drink, smoke dope (through a nebulizer), dance a little, and talk, talk, talk about everything from alpha males to the merits of monogamy and marriage. The gimmick is that they’re swingers who’ve come for a regular session of partner swapping for which they pay dues and obey rules, for example: 20 minutes for couples on the inflatable mattresses in the party room; 30 minutes for threesomes.
Or, rather, most of them are in “the lifestyle.” Chris (Greg Stuhr) and Kristy (Diane Davis) are newcomers invited by hosts, Gary (Keith Kupferer) and Teri (Kate Arrington), who met them in Cabo. They arrive first with … well, all sorts of qualms … and don’t know what to expect, except that it isn’t a group affair. They also have a lot of emotional baggage suggesting that their marriage is in trouble, and the problems emerge as the evening wears on. The main source of tension, though, is the way Chris expresses his discomfort. At first, he’s mildly disapproving of values and practices that differ from his own rather traditional ones, but as the others challenge, tease, and test him, he becomes increasingly defensive, argumentative, belligerent, and insulting until he and another guest come to blows.
That guest is Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall), the multisexual African American personal trainer who became Deb’s (Kirsten Fitzgerald) lover after the death of her husband, who apparently had been the group’s alpla male. Chris hurls the “f” word at him for his effete mannerisms, but he also verbally assaults Roger (David Pasquesi), the sarcastic current alpha male given to goading with outrageous tales, and even Gary, an affable middle-class sort with a live-and-let-live attitude.
While Chris’s hostility to the men stems partly from his insecurity about the beautiful Kristy, who’s desired by all of them, the women don’t escape his anger, either. He’s especially cruel to the loud, brash, heavy-set Deb, who aggressively comes on to him, but also definitively rejects Regine (Karen Aldridge), Roger’s French-Caribbean mate who has a taste for silk stockings and bustiers.
The thing is, besides being bothered by the thin plot and outdated swinger premise, I didn’t want to spend five minutes with these unpleasant characters, much less an intermissionless 90. But then something clicked, and I began seeing “The Qualms” not as a conventional play, but as an examination of group dynamics and how individuals behave within the group.
That makes the fine points of the interactions in the little struggles for power and status much more interesting and also highlights contrasts, such as Kristy’s willingness to be tolerant and try to fit in, an openness that draws her together with Teri, who comes across as dim-witted and out-of-it but just wants everyone to get along.
A sharp satirist who is skewering everyone starting with the jerky Chris, Norris is especially adept at capturing the humor in each situation, and the play has quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Even more than that, he’s attuned to the comic incongruity between people’s plans and schemes and the banal minutiae of everyday life that intrude at every turn. These ordinary moments and characters’ need to feel that they are normal give the play its humanity.
Sensitively directed by Pam MacKinnon and superbly acted, “The Qualms” even has a happy ending of sorts. After Chris’s outbursts have left Todd Rosenthal’s impeccable set littered with food and other detritus, and some have tried to bolster others by revealing details of their lives (Teri recounts her harrowing past with a matter-of-fact cheerfulness), and Kristy has failed to change her clothes to leave with the distraught Chris because she doesn’t want to bother the crying Deb in the bedroom, everyone starts cleaning up the mess together. Civility (or is that civilization?) is restored and then … let’s just say, dessert trumps sex. Nor is the specific dessert an accident, considering the several comparisons between humans and their nearest cousins.