The Qualms, at the Steppenwolf Theater, stars, from left, Karen Aldridge, Keith Kupferer, Kate Arrington, Greg Stuhr, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis (photo by Michael Brosilow).
July 16, 2014 - For a play that's ostensibly about sex, Steppenwolf Theatre Company's The Qualms is remarkably sex-free. Instead, the dark comedy is filled with rapid-fire discussions about relationships, taboos, monogamy, and kinks—all of which lead to little sex and lots of laughs.
Playwright Bruce Norris doesn't waste any time getting to the point, either. From the moment the lights go up on the enviably gorgeous beachside home of Gary and Teri, their polyamorous weekend of fun with friends starts to unravel. Chris and Kristy, new to the circle of friends and frolicking, are fine with the wine and small talk but grow uncomfortable as soon as the conversation turns to the “party room”and the casual sex that awaits therein. As each guest arrives, Chris becomes more and more agitated, ultimately crossing a line that sends the group into a hilarious and thought-provoking tailspin of doubt and distrust.
Though the frankness of the writing is parallel to the ideas contained within the show, it sometimes feels like the script is checking off all of the boxes on Norris's agenda. Norris is interested in raising certain questions in The Qualms, and so he does. Can someone be in a committed relationship and enjoy sex with other people? What constitutes commitment? How sexually adventurous is too sexually adventurous? How honest is too honest?
While The Qualms' structure does feel a little forced at times, the debates that occur between the bullet points are really quite intriguing. More importantly, the acting is razor sharp, and the entire ensemble is immensely entertaining. Greg Stuhr is spot-on as the conflictedly curious Chris; Kirsten Fitzgerald moves deftly from hilarious to heart-breaking as Deb; and Keith Kupferer and Kate Arrington's comic timing are dead on as Gary and Teri, the couple hosting the whole ill-fated shindig.
The Qualms' success is due also in large part to Pam MacKinnon's thoughtful direction. With characters literally shouting over one another at times and so many relationships to manage, the script needs a strong director to add clarity and nuance. MacKinnon has done that and more. The result is a piece that is both challenging and fun, and the performance is punctuated with equal amounts of horrified gasps and delighted laughter from the audience.
Just as the play itself is more complicated than it appears on the surface, so too are the design elements of the production. More than one audience member was heard to remark that they'd love to live on Todd Rosenthal's gorgeous set, and who can blame them? With soothing colors and a well-appointed kitchen, it's much nicer than most apartments in Chicago. Russel H. Champa's lighting design is also to be commended. The Qualms' needs are pretty straight-forward, but it's rare that a designer recreates natural light so beautifully, taking us from twilight to dusk to darkness seamlessly, gently enhancing the mood and tone from start to finish.
As Gary says during one of the production'sheated debates, “Shit is complex.” That just about sums up The Qualms. Relationships—traditional or not, with one person or many—aren't easy. They're messy and inconvenient, but the best relationships—and the best experiences—are worth the effort. The Qualms is undoubtedly worth it.
The Qualms runs at Steppenwolf Theatre through August 31.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Razor Sharp cast and Thoughtful Direction Propel The Qualms at Steppenwolf
THEATER REVIEW: By Leslie Price