Chicago Theatre Review
To Play or Not to Play
The Qualms – Steppenwolf Theatre
Invited by Gary and Teri, newcomers Chris and Kristy are the first to arrive for the party at their hosts’ luxurious, high tech apartment within an exclusive gated beach community. The other guests, including Deb and Ken and Regine and Roger, soon begin drifting in with his own snack to share. This group of adults periodically meet for the purpose of sharing food, drinks, drugs and sex. The social gathering, once called “wife-swapping” or “swinging,” unfortunately doesn’t go quite as planned. And, even though Chris thought he was liberal enough for this kind of fun, he soon realizes that the other guests, including his wife, subscribe to different definitions of partnering. Each party guest views monogamy diversely, and the evening’s planned orgy of wild, uninhibited passion turns into a heated debate about sexual power and control.
This play was written by Steppenwolf company member Bruce Norris, the prolific, much-honored contemporary playwright whose “Clybourne Park” was the recipient of 2011’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as the Tony, the Olivier and the Evening Standard Awards for Best Play. His current world premier is controversial in its subject matter while being liberally peppered with very frank, often graphic adult language and situations. But Norris’ play also feels unfinished. His characters argue themselves into an emotional frenzy, unleashing multiple theories regarding the sanctity of marriage. Norris proposes that some people believe that it’s now archaic that couples, whether legally married or not, should remain monogamous. However, the playwright builds his comic drama right up to the final moments, exploring every angle and argument, and then simply peters out. There’s no conclusion nor any resolution; the play just ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
Multi-accoladed director Pam MacKinnon teams up once again with Mr. Norris. She’s both an expert at directing his plays and also at guiding a stageful of talented actors, keeping their characters vital and alive. She understands the electricity that generates behind good comic and dramatic timing. Ms. MacKinnon keeps her theatrical metronome ticking away at a fast clip, every now and then pausing for a laugh to land or a point to hit home (although they come fast and furious in this play). She also, has an incredibly gorgeous stage on which to tell Norris’ story, with Todd Rosenthal’s realistic, minutely-detailed scenic design as one of the standout elements of this production.
Ms. MacKinnon’s cast is stellar. Greg Stuhr plays Chris, undoubtedly the playwright’s spokesman. Masking his character’s uneasiness behind false bravado and rapid-fire, staccato line delivery, Mr. Stuhr leaves his mark in this Chicago and Steppenwolf debut. Saddled with the bulk of the dialogue while playing the odd man out among the other guests, Stuhr finds the perfect balance between being shy and demonstrating bullheaded righteousness. In another Steppenwolf debut, Diane Davis skillfully creates his wife Kristy as a woman trying to keep her embarrassment in check while still wanting to assert her independence. Audiences understand that, given different circumstances, Kristy might enjoy partaking in “the life,” as this “polyamorous” group calls themselves, instead of trying to appease her husband. Kirsten Fitzgerald proves a real powerhouse in the role of Deb, a sassy, larger-than-life personality who appears to have developed a protective shield, but despite her thick armor her feelings become deeply and irretrievably hurt by Chris‘ callousness. Kate Arrington’s Teri generates most of the play’s laughs with her dimwitted innocence and candor. And David Pasquesi makes his Roger a cool, smooth, sarcastic devil’s advocate during the evening’s sexually political debates.
Although ironically there’s very little hanky-panky in this play about sex, the ideas bandied about and the fervor with which these theories are debated makes for a most exciting comic drama. The problem arises when, after all’s been said and done, the playwright seems to have run out of steam before his show is finished. The play simply ends and it’s as if the previous 90 minutes never happened. Perhaps that’s the idea: all of what the audience witnesses happens only in Chris’ mind. But, then again, maybe not. With a more committed conclusion by the playwright, Bruce Norris’ latest play will surely rank up there with his best. For right now, this excellent production will have to be enough.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 3-August 31 by Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Steppenwolf box office, by calling 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.