416 W. 42nd Street
The modern theater has increasingly given itself over to frank discussions of sex and sexual behavior, for both comedic and dramatic purposes, and there comes a point when this dialogue about sex cannot really go any further. Bruce Norris’s The Qualms is very much a discussion of sex and sexual boundaries, working its way gradually from sex comedy to something slightly more serious, and it hints at the need for a time-out from sex, or at least from talk about sex.
Gary (John Procaccino) and Teri (Kate Arrington) are hosting a swinger party at their condo near the beach, and in the opening scene they are getting to know two new members, Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and Kristy (Sarah Goldberg). Gary seems like a bit of a blowhard at first, but he’s actually a go-with-the-flow hippie type, and Teri, who seems perpetually stoned and comically accepting, is clearly his ideal mate. The beautiful blonde Kristy heads to the bedroom in back for a brief tryst with Teri, and when they come back a whole lot of new characters are introduced.
There are eight characters in The Qualms, not including a briefly seen delivery guy (Julian Leong) who gets a big laugh toward the end, and that’s a lot of characters to keep track of. There’s the complex, extroverted Deb (Donna Lynne Champlin), who was recently widowed, and her lover Ken (Andy Lucien), who seems obviously gay. There’s the sophisticated Regine (Chinasa Ogbuagu), who struts around in silk stockings, and Roger (Noah Emmerich), the none-too-bright alpha male who did a tour of duty during the first Iraq War. There are times when all eight of these people are on stage at once, which presents big staging problems for director Pam MacKinnon. None of the interactions within this group ever seem to occur naturally or effortlessly, and there isn’t enough cohesion among the cast members, who are too focused on their individual characters and not enough on what’s happening between them in the moment.
Shamos’s Chris is the de facto lead of the ensemble because the drama in The Qualms is in his increasingly unlikable objections, or qualms, to the swinger event itself. He’s basically a conservative sort of guy who has come to this orgy because of his own insecurity about his relations with his beautiful wife, and so he feels the need to get into petty pissing matches with the other male characters; when the female characters assert themselves with him, he puts them down until he finally pricks the balloon of Deb’s over-confidence. The conflict between Chris and the others reaches a height and then the play quiets down as we watch most of the characters clean up the physical mess that has been made. And then several of them share a few memories, and a modest amount of hope is signaled. The Qualms is compelling and it ends rather well, but the staging needs to find more fluidity if it is to reach its full potential.