playwrights horizons

‘The Qualms’ Unconfidently Tackles Sex at a Swingers Party

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.

Podcast Episode 2 Out Now!

In this episode of Letters From the Mezzanine, we swap some theater-related news, talk about Sara’s experience at 39 Steps, and discuss the surreal and unique Iowa at Playwrights Horizons.

Links to Things Discussed:

Little Shop of Horrors at City Center Encores

39 Steps: Review and Website

Iowa: Review and Website

“Grand Concourse” @ Playwrights Horizons

The average theater-goer may not find Grand Concourse, a large boulevard spanning the Bronx, to be a source of dramatic inspiration. But as someone who’s been riding the Bx1 bus all her life, I can point out a few treasures:

1) The Pregones Theater, a fantastic theatre company just a few blocks away that has recently teamed up with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater,

2) The Bronx Supreme Criminal Court, where real life courtroom dramas play out five days a week, and

3) The Butternut Street Theatre at All Hallows High School, located on Grand Concourse and East 164th Street. It’s where seventeen-year-old me got serious with Shakespeare in the Drama Club’s production of The Winter’s Tale.

So when I heard that Playwrights Horizons was producing a play named after Grand Concourse, my interest was totally piqued. I wanted to know how playwright Heidi Schreck was going to utilize this underutilized setting. I was also desperately hoping that this wouldn’t be one of those narratives where the one white cipher character is forever changed by the other lively but troubled minority characters.

No. Stop that. (Source:

Fortunately, my fears were completely unfounded. Grand Concourse is as complex and captivating as its namesake. Set in a Bronx soup kitchen, the play follows Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a veil-less nun who is questioning her faith–and is setting her one-minute prayers to the kitchen’s microwave timer. She’s assisted by Oscar (Bobby Moreno), an affable twenty-something who works at the soup kitchen, and is pestered by Frog (Lee Wilkof), a soup kitchen regular who sneaks carrots out of the refrigerator. Enter Emma (Ismenia Mendes), a nineteen-year-old college dropout who wants to start volunteering at the kitchen. Shelley takes Emma on, not knowing the devastating and life-changing consequences it will bring.

GRAND CONCOURSE OCTOBER 17, 2014 – NOVEMBER 30, 2014 PETER JAY SHARP THEATER Written by   Heidi Schreck Directed by  Kip Fagan WORLD PREMIERE Called to a life of religious service, Shelley is the devoted manager of a Bronx soup kitchen, but lately her
Emma, Oscar, and Shelley putting the Soup Nazi to shame. (Source: Joan Marcus)

Heidi Schreck’s play is a breath of fresh air in contemporary theatre. Having the play set not only in the Bronx–but in a basement soup kitchen–allows for new actions to take place that wouldn’t occur in, say, a living room in a home in New England. The diverse cast also actually resembles New York City’s colorful population. Their diversity isn’t just interesting in terms of ethnicity and gender, though. The varied characters (a young woman, a young man, a nun, and a homeless man) allow for different relationships and conflicts to occur: ones that we don’t often see in a standard two couples/family living room drama. I found it particularly engaging to watch Shelley’s progression as she struggles with her identity, her religion, and her ability to forgive. Shelley’s difficult yet triumphant journey makes her the fiercest nun in theatre since Audra McDonald’s Mother Superior.

So holy. So fierce. (Source:

Grand Concourse’s other strength lies in its humor. The cast, directed by Kip Fagan, has excellent timing in bringing Schreck’s comedic moments to life. Grand Concourse’s ability to make the audience laugh further accentuates the poignancy of the play’s more serious moments. It shows that there’s plenty drama to be found in the Bronx–and some smiles, too.

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