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The Qualms

Bruce Norris’ newest work of foot-in-mouth theater is hilarious and incisive.

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Kate Arrington, Jeremy Shamos and Sarah Goldberg in a scene from Bruce Norris’ “The Qualms” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Kate Arrington, Jeremy Shamos and Sarah Goldberg in a scene from Bruce Norris’ “The Qualms” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

[avatar user=”Daniel J. Lee” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Daniel J. Lee, Critic[/avatar] Playwright Bruce Norris has become quite practiced at portraying awkward clashes of ideologies onstage: Clybourne Park, his take on race, earned him the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Featuring a slew of generally well-intentioned, albeit misguided and misinformed white people blundering their way through [less-than] political correctness, the play exposes the double standards, latent bigotry, and embarrassing pitfalls surrounding the subject. Most recently, The Qualms—his thematically distinct but similarly presented analysis of adult human sexuality currently playing at Playwrights Horizons—offers a new addition to Norris’ rapidly growing ouvre. Thanks to him, the hilarious and cerebral Foot-in-Mouth theater movement is in full swing.

The Qualms focalizes on Chris and Kristy, a relatively young, relatively newlywed couple at their first—and perhaps last—swingers party. While Kristy seems receptive to the sexual openness of the group, her husband is a rather stereotypical, affluent man who allows his heteronormative predispositions to inform his judgments of the party’s other attendees. As the evening heats up and the extra-marital hookups become imminent, the evening devolves into painful, uncomfortable chaos.

Norris is interested in examining issues so often argued in black and white terms by drawing out the—pun intended—shades of grey. However, while wryly entertaining and largely incisive, his new work suffers from some of the same missteps as does his aforementioned Clybourne Park. Namely, he paints Chris—his ostensibly well-intentioned, under-informed, straight white male character—as so downright nasty that it is almost impossible to listen to any of his arguments, however logical some of them may be. While the action of the play operates under the guise of an engaging debate that includes various different perspectives, the scales are tipped and its presentation of arguments is uneven.

Donna Lynne Champlin and Andy Lucien in a scene from Bruce Norris’ “The Qualms” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Donna Lynne Champlin and Andy Lucien in a scene from Bruce Norris’ “The Qualms” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Despite this unevenness, the riotous text and Pam McKinnon’s sharp direction make for an engaging, enjoyable night of theater. Her seamless staging pairs well with his script, which is essentially one long, meandering scene. The ensemble cast of nine fumbles around scenic designer Todd Rosenthal’s impressively realistic and seemingly functional beach house living room, kitchen, and patio with remarkable fluidity. This production plays up the script’s realist tones to further contrast the ridiculous sequence of events.

Norris is likewise smart to include a variety of eccentric, fascinating characters and also lucky to have a strong cast of actors to bring them to life. Jeremy Shamos’ Chris and Sarah Goldberg’s Kristy are appropriately stodgy and insecure, respectively. The craziness of Kate Arrington’s Teri is balanced well with John Procaccino’s mellow (i.e. stoned) Gary. However, if there must be a standout in this strong ensemble, the distinction likely goes to Donna Lynne Champlin as Deb, the optimistic but emotionally vulnerable widow now in a committed relationship with her massage therapist.

The Qualms affords its audience the distinct, voyeuristic pleasure of watching that sort of party we would likely never dare to attend, and in the process it works to change some of our preconceived notions about human sexuality. Who can say whether marriage is the ideal lifestyle? By what standards can we label monogamy as “right”? In the eyes of Bruce Norris, it’s complicated.

The Qualms (through July 12, 2015)

Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater

416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit

Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission

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