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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Qualms: a new play by Bruce Norris

Or: Swinger State

In a well appointed sea-side apartment Teri (Kate Arrington) and Gary (Keith Kupferer) prepare to host this months meeting of their society of swingers where couples of all walks of life (well mainly rich, cosmopolitan ones) can gather to enjoy snackrels, engage in stimulating conversation, and get down and jiggly with whoever they please. Teri and Gary have been busily recruiting a new couple Kristy (Diane Davis) and Chris (Greg Stuher), who though present and willing harbor certain hesitancies about the whole philosophy. As the guests pile in and the tension tightens and the chummy knee pats roam higher up the leg- it becomes uncertain whether anyone in the room knows what they want or knows the most “civilized” way to go about getting it.

I am happy to report that despite it’s subject matter The Qualms features very little in the way of compromising or lewd action. It is not an example of those stories that promotes wild copulating in the streets, as the philistines used to, and still do, accuse the theatre of promoting. Indeed, Norris, professional purveyor of discomfort, is quoted as saying, “I wanted to write a play that would make it just impossible to go home afterwards and have s-x”. As for it’s language, it is no more course or crass than any other modern day drama you’ll find in a major metropolitan story-scene. However his new “s-x comedy” leaves a little something to be desired style wise, as it runs almost pulse for pulse with his revered or reviled (depending on who you ask) “race drama”, Clybourne Park (or at least the second, less tragedy heavy, act). In essence: 1) Characters gather to engage in banter-heavy naturalistic drama, 2) a controversial taboo topic is introduced, causing for edged politeness and conversational miss-stepping, usually miss-stepped by an uptight White Anglo Saxon Protestant Male, 3) said uptight WASPM explodes in a fit of unrighteous anger and prejudice causing other characters to explode in similar outbursts, 4) things settle into awkwardness, 5) the action becomes something Truer and more drawing than naturalistic drama.

While his style of storytelling remains unchanged, Norris has given extra thought and a great deal of finesse to the timing of his piece. Nothing happens before its time or without its own personal cause. The last quarter of the play is also given up to some lovingly crafted, artisanal silences, as action or consideration is given its own time to unfold. Many of the ensemble do not quite have the timing required for the banter portions to make the jokes land, making wit seem too much like knee-jerk responses, and genuine knee-jerk responses more like badly born attempts at wit. Exceptions to the rule are Arrington’s lapping cosmopolitan concern, as well as Kristen Fitzgerald’s (Deb) popping devil-may-care dashes and Paul Oakley Stovall’s (Ken) pointed pushes (though Norris gives Ken short shrift in dialog, making him an expounder and not a conversationalist).

You should know, dear reader, that it is entirely possible that my own antagonistic relationship with the “two backed beast” (I find it domineering, arrogant, and violent and it finds me dull and disdains my choices in literature) has restrained me from drawing the full depth of The Qualms. Personally I cannot see how it answers the rightfully famous Lookingglass question: “Why This Play Now?”.

When I conjure the moral picture of the play, I just see a bunch of abstract ideas about possession and status and freedom loosely tethered to and bobbing around above a roiling vat of animal desire and basic unpleasantness. I’d dismiss it all together were it not for that, occasionally the roiling stills and Norris shows us the shining waters of kindness and decency which should underline any relationship: carnal, filial, or light and momentary as a sound.

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