Theater Review | THE QUALMS by Bruce Norris at Steppenwolf Theatre

Incredibly, even though he has already won every award there is and been produced all over the world, Bruce Norris only continues to improve and hone his contemporary relevance. With THE QUALMS, a skillfully crafted, compact exploration of monogamy and its limitations as experienced inside an alternative polyamorous (aka partner swapping) community, this questing, ambitious artist delivers his best play since CLYBOURNE PARK and shows that there is seemingly no aspect of contemporary American life that does not interest him.

Audience members may be surprised to find that Norris’s heretofore customary abrasive tone is noticeably absent in THE QUALMS. In fact, his sympathetic treatment of many of the play’s characters and the sensitive exploration of some of hu(wo)manity’s deepest flaws (as well as most endearing assets) suggest a most unexpected discovery: Bruce Norris is happy.

THE QUALMS by Bruce Norris at Steppenwolf Theatre Thru August 31

90 minutes (with no intermission)


Dinner with friends.  And then bong hits.  Followed by partner swapping.  Cast of THE QUALMS at Steppenwolf.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Dinner with friends. And then bong hits. Followed by partner swapping. Cast of THE QUALMS at Steppenwolf. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

CHICAGO – It’s any night of the week in a small southern (or is it western?) city. And as several middle class couples who could be anyone arrive for dinner at a gated beachside complex, the conversation turns – as it always does for ordinary Americans kicking back with friends – to the anachronistic human institution of monogamy, the abstract concept of sharing sexual partners, and the rather more specific proposition of turning your own spouse over to someone else for the next 20 minutes.

Or a full half hour if it involves a three way.

Wait. What? From the very first line of this sharp and sticky world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, you sense that, despite the realistic setting (kitchen sink and all) of a comfortable home, this is not going to be just any ordinary night at the theatre. But then this isn’t just any ordinary playwright at the helm. It’s bomb thrower Bruce Norris, who has made a career out of lobbing anti-complacency grenades deep into the box seats of the American class system and mercilessly picking apart the commonly held but often inadequately explored beliefs and assumptions that underpin some of contemporary society’s thorniest topics. He’s taken on race, money, and privilege. And now he trains his sights on marriage, fidelity, monogamy and sexual possessiveness.

In this fast-moving play, which at only 90 minutes with no intermission positively flies along, Norris is like a man with a torch walking briskly past a long line of cannons pointed at the audience, merrily lighting the fuses on all of them. He then disappears into the night, and after a short delay all hell breaks loose. A vast number of questions and issues are opened up, but very few are resolved. As you leave the theatre, the scope of the play keeps expanding. Which is what good theatre does.

Couple # 1. Kate Arrington (Teri) and Keith Kupferer (Gary) are hosting the current gathering of “the lifestyle” at their beachside home. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

As the play begins, married couple Chris and Kristy are discovered visiting with Gary and Teri in the latter’s home. We quickly figure out that Gary and Teri are hosting some sort of sex party for couples and that Chris and Kristy, for the first time, have decided to come and see what’s involved. The two couples met on vacation in Mexico a while back, at which time Gary mentioned “the lifestyle” and extended an invitation to learn more. The two newcomers, an attractive wholesome looking duo, have now decided to do just that, and they become the audience’s entry point into this strange new world (to all of the audience? some?) ahead. Much of the dramatic action involves these two finding out exactly what they have gotten themselves into, and then interrogating, resisting, arguing with, or submitting to the group’s activities.

Kate Arrington, Greg Stuhr and Diane Davis.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Oh behave. Couple # 2 meets the welcome wagon. Kate Arrington, Greg Stuhr (Chris) and Diane Davis (Kristy). Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Within the first few lines, Gary (a perfectly cast Keith Kupferer as a stout swinger in floral shirt with thinning hair and a penchant for electronic hookahs) immediately marks out where we’re headed: “Why do people get married? We’re not naturally monogamous, you know.” Chris (a hilariously uncomfortable and uptight Greg Stuhr) is the straight man whose sensibilities are going to be violated by just about everything all night long, all the while assuring us that he’s “not conservative.” Kristy (a fabulous Diane Davis, recently seen in the outstanding revival of THE MODEL APARTMENT by Donald Margulies at Primary Stages in New York) is a very attractive and eventually more interested explorer than her husband, though when we later find out which half of the outside couple wanted to come and why, we’ll be surprised. Teri (a sexy and affectionate Kate Arrington) makes it clear she is potentially interested in both Chris and Christy. Teri and Gary are not married.

No sooner do we grasp the setup than the rest of our marvelous cast of characters for the evening (dazzling actors all) begin to arrive at the house. Two other couples soon materialize (for a total of four), and we figure out that this gathering, which takes place in some unspecified coastal location, is one that people from all over the country attend, and its location moves around to different hosts every few months. Gary reminds everyone to “check the web site and pay your dues if you haven’t already”. In short, we have a society of swingers, and they have known each other for some time.

Kirsten Fitzgerald and Paul Oakley Stovall.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Couple # 3. Kirsten Fitzgerald (Deb) and Paul Oakley Stovall (Ken). Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Next to arrive are Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall), also not married. Deb is a large woman (you know Norris is going to do something with that). Ken is a flamboyant, buffed out guy, whose exact sexuality will puzzle straight man Chris (who thinks he is gay) to no end. And then Regine (Karen Aldridge), a French woman from Marseille, and Roger (David Pasquesi), a thin and prickly Gulf War vet arrive and our group is complete.

Kirsten Fitzgerald and Paul Oakley Stovall.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Checking out the merchandise. Kirsten Fitzgerald and Paul Oakley Stovall. Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Karen Aldridge and David Pasquesi.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Couple # 4. Karen Aldridge (Regine) and David Pasquesi (Roger). Photo: Michael Brosilow.

And so now with our full group of eight on hand, what happens next is…

Unfortunately, I really do not want to give away any more than I already have about the play’s trajectory. Suffice it to say that every social taboo against enjoying multiple sex partners is soon arrayed on the table and taken up by different members of the assembled group, to devastatingly funny but also provocative effect. By about an hour in, the evening’s planned schedule has been reduced to rubble, and some characters are threatened to the very core. And then there is some real ugliness.

But it is in the play’s final seven minutes that yet another trademark Norris coup de théâtre takes us to a whole different plane. No one can let a silent, heavy moment hang there like Norris. And then with a single line he converts all that built up emotion into anarchic, uncontrollable, revolutionary laughter. The kind that upends everything you thought you believed and knew. The kind that could even change your mind. We end the play with one of those moments that can only happen in the live theatre. And we could all do with a lot more of those.

An actor as well as a playwright, Norris knows how to create material for an ensemble like Steppenwolf to shine. And watching these eight phenomenal actors (expertly directed by Pam MacKinnon who, fresh from the extraordinary WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID by Sarah Treem at Manhattan Theatre Club, has now directed two of the most exciting new American plays of 2014 – both concerned with sex) command the stage (and each others’ bodies – oh behave) is truly inspiring.

After Chicago, THE QUALMS heads to Playwrights Horizons for its New York premiere in May 2015.

Catch it while you can.

-Win Goodbody

Greg Stuhr and Karen Aldridge.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Pushing the straight man’s boundaries. “Have you ever had sex with a non white woman?” Greg Stuhr and Karen Aldridge. Photo: Michael Brosilow.
David Pasquesi and Greg Stuhr.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
In the jungle, males of the species fight for dominance. Luckily we’re more civilized. David Pasquesi and Greg Stuhr. Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Karen Aldridge, Diane Davis and Greg Stuhr.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Newcomer Kristy has shed her clothes for a bathrobe and is ready to explore “the lifestyle”. Karen Aldridge, Diane Davis and Greg Stuhr. Photo: Michael Brosilow.
  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Burning down the house. Waiting for the powder keg to ignite. Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Paul Oakley Stovall.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
We need to see more of this man. The superb Paul Oakley Stovall. Photo: Michael Brosilow.