It’s hard to be polite at a swingers sex party. How do you refuse the stubborn advances of someone to whom you’re just not attracted to, or express discomfort without being called a prude? In this sense, I sympathize with The Qualm’s protagonist, Chris (Jeremy Shamos), whose first-timer apprehension quickly unleashes an avalanche of arguments, insults, tears, and a sizing-up among the men folk. It’s a lose-lose situation for him, and his uneasiness is as full-bodied as the bottle of cabernet he keeps pushing on the party-goers.
Noah Emmerich and Jeremy Shamos in The Qualms. Photo by Joan Marcus
On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to questions Chris’s sensibility here. Why Chris would agree to bring his wife Kristy (Sarah Goldberg) to a sex party, especially without the open-mindedness or mutual discussion such an experience requires, is never quite explained and is the deepest hole in Bruce Norris’s (of Clybourne Park fame) airily revolving play. I only surmise that Chris and Kristy have ended up at Gary (John Procaccino) and Teri’s (Kate Arrington) beach house out of Chris’s clumsy fear to refuse Gary’s invitation. Chris’s nervousness also reveals traditional expectations from marriage (he equates the party-goers to dogs) and homophobic insinuations. The fact that Chris can’t refuse a three-way with a man without expressing homophobic thoughts is equally a criticism of Chris’s beliefs and the persistent come-ons from the party-goers, the combination of which is lethal to the party’s sex drive. However, I also see Chris’s clear homophobia a fault with Norris’s writing– a much more nuanced discussion of human sexuality and our willingness to experience new things could have taken place if Chris’s fear weren’t attributed to a simple fault of character.
The cast of The Qualms. Photo by Tina Fineberg
That being said, Norris’s script is packed with laughs, both uncomfortable and riotous. There are also some interesting discussions of sexual taboos and the nature of love, but the play doesn’t exactly contribute anything new to the discourse. The most philosophical of the characters is by far Gary, an easygoing, middle-aged hippie who confidently welcomes all to partake in his medium-rare pork (which Chris rightly questions). Then there’s military vet Roger (Noah Emmerich) who insists on pressing all of Chris’s buttons, particularly the gay one, even though Roger himself claims to have never had gay sex. Roger largely becomes the target for Chris’s anger, although in fact the two might actually be more similar than they think.
Rounding up the production is a stellar cast. Jeremy Shamos is reliably excellent in pretty much everything, and here, his sardonic insanity and comedic timing are perfect. You can see the wheels in Chris’s mind turning as he tries to express his feelings as politely as possible (and failing miserably) while still trying to maintain a dignified self-assertion. John Procaccino is a perfect fit for the cool and comfortable Roger, and Kate Arrington dizzily delivers some of the best lines in the show. Donna Lynne Champlin is certainly the heart of the show as Deb, a woman who finds love after her husband’s death…with his nurse.
Some of the best scenes in the show are largely silent. In one, a delivery guy shows up at the peak of the party’s chaos, and his gaping stare hilariously sums up the evening’s absurdity. In another, the group cleans up the house at the end of the evening, gathering up condoms and spilled food in strife-filled quiet. It is the most emotion-filled scene in the play without a single word being said. And anyone saying that there wasn’t any sex in the show clearly missed the cunnalingus happening on the kitchen counter. This is good, guys. Let’s keep this trend going.
The Qualms is playing at Playwrights Horizons through July 12. The Qualms is written by Bruce Norris and directed by Pam MacKinnon. Tickets here.