Bruce Norris’s new play, The Qualms, explores the space of sexual self-consciousness, the spectrum from repression to completely free sexual expression. Norris plays on the extremes, letting the natural tension between fuel the drama. The play looks at how difficult it can be to throw off social mores. It does this very funnily at times even as a piece of writing it feels underdeveloped and short on insight.
The Qualms takes place at the monthly meeting of a polyamory club. The club’s hosts Ken (John Procaccino) and Teri (Kate Arrington) sit in their living room with anxious newbies Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and Kristy (Sarah Goldberg), getting acquainted as they discuss the repressive force of monogamy. It is clear that Ken – in his baggy pants and untucked Hawaiian shirt – is as comfortable with the subject as Chris – in his decidedly more conservative garb – is hesitant. This is the tension that will define the play: Ken, Teri, and the rest of the polyamorous crew enjoying their lifestyle choice, while Chris in particular struggles to assimilate comfortably.
Chris and Kristy’s marriage has not been on the most solid of ground recently, so they have hooked up with the polyamory club in the hopes of reigniting their spark. But – predictably enough – their attempt at rekindling a marriage through sexual experimentation proves less than successful. Kristy is not sure precisely how to overcome her hesitancy, while Chris discovers very quickly that his sense of sexual adventure is not as strong as he’d thought or hoped. His compulsive need to voice his opinion—one which is very much at odds with the group—comes to dominate much of the play’s action.
Pam MacKinnon’s production boasts some great performances. Shamos convinces as character who simply cannot seem to shut himself up, and Noah Emmerich shines as a swinger with an edge. Donna Lynne Champlin’s Deb is the most amusing character – her elated “Hi Chris!” upon meeting the newcomer is one of the production’s best line deliveries.
But while there is humor to be found in this portrait of a buttoned-up, conservative white male becoming deeply uncomfortable and defensive when in foreign sexual territory, it does seem like low-hanging fruit, dramatically speaking. There’s little here which is new or challenging. MacKinnon grinds the pace of the play’s second half to a crawl, seeking to capitalize upon and underscore the profound awkwardness overtaking events, but the effect is overwrought. This is undoubtedly a funny play. There are many laughs to be had in The Qualms – sex and its peculiar effect on our social selves has the power to amuse – but Norris’s writing does not push itself and does not do much to take its subject matter in any interesting new directions.