Bruce Norris's THE QUALMS is an attempt at a serious comedy about sexual mores: serious since modern American society is both puritanical and sex-obsessed, comic because sex has always been a focus of comedy. When the play begins two couples are arguing the pros and cons of monogamy. Gary, an aging hippie (John Procaccino) and his not-too-bright, but sexy younger wife Teri (Kate Arrington), advocates of sexual freedom, are wooing their guests, uptight Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and his beautiful wife Kristy (Sarah Goldberg). This is the prelude to a meeting of a swingers club at which Chris and Kristy are debutantes. Kristy, the first to begin making out (with Teri) and shedding her clothes in favor of a bathrobe, seems to be raring to go. Chris is obviously frightened and reluctant.
The members of this swingers club are a varied group--in addition to Gary and Teri, there is an ebullient fat widow who comes with a seemingly gay young Black man (her late husband's reflexologist), a tall, attractive Black woman with dominatrix tendencies and a brash, middle-aged party boy. The meetings are like any Saturday night adult gathering--drinks, a pot luck supper. All this is supposed to be foreplay for sexual escapades in the "party room." Instead, the party turns into an argument, then something of a free-for-all, thanks to Chris's progression from reluctance to downright terror to a need to assume control of the group. Chris won't stop talking, arguing his opposition to the group's sexual activities and finally personal attacks on many members of the group. He's the ultimate party pooper, but Chris and the play he is in go on too long repeating his position and the group's opposition to him. Of course, what keeps him from leaving is the fact that his wife is still there in her bathrobe. He doesn't want to play, but even more he doesn't want her to play. Kristy is the least talkative, the woman of mystery. It's clear that, except for Chris and Kristy, the members of this group have successful, loving relationships. Fat Deb adored her husband and clearly is very fond of her companion, Ken, though he may be more interested in men than women. Swingers Gary and Teri adore each other. The swingers group is a cohesive group of friends. Norris clearly has more sympathy with the swingers than with overbearing, conservative Chris.
The problem with THE QUALMS is that it goes on too long. The characters are stereotypes that verge on being politically incorrect: the jolly fat lady, the bimbo, the enigmatic blonde, the Black queen, the lanky Black dominatrix. Once the conflict is established, it can only repeat itself and escalate. Chris, who won't shut up, becomes tiresome and the play gets tiresome with him. After seeing two excellent character-driven comic dramas this weekend, WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER and SIGNIFICANT OTHER, THE QUALMS was a letdown. The cast is uniformly excellent and Pam McKinnon has directed effectively. The script is the weak link.
THE QUALMS, Playwrights Horizons, June 7, 2015.