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Thursday, July 17, 2014

I didn't get laid at Steppenwolf Theatre's The Qualms, but I still had a good time



I first became aware of swinging - aka wife/partner swapping - in the 1970s when producer Norman Lear introduced me to this alternative lifestyle on episodes of his TV series, All in the Family and Maude. And much later director Ang Lee featured some swinging '70s couples in his 1997 drama, The Ice Storm, and in 2008, CBS aired Swingtown, a short-lived series about suburban swingers in 1976. So it's definitely not a new and original idea for a writer to explore, which Bruce Norris - the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning author (Clybourne Park) - is currently doing in his contemporary comedy, The Qualms, at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. The action, of course, begins with a married couple deciding to indulge in some swinging for the first time during a party with their new friends - but then "The Qualms" arrive. A "qualm" is defined as "a feeling of doubt or uncertainty about whether you are doing the right thing" - and lead character Chris isn't so sure that swinging is for him and his wife Kristy as the evening progresses. Very little sex takes place as Chris and Kristy and three other couples spend most of their time just discussing sex while enjoying a precoital spread of food. A lot of what they talk about is quite amusing - and most of the performances are great - but after an intermission-less 90 minutes, I did leave the theater a bit hungry for something more. Or maybe it was just the banana pudding that one of the party guests brings that made me famished. And if that is the case, I'm sure Norris would prefer an audience to be thinking about his provocative words on their way home rather than a delicious dessert.

Director Pam MacKinnon deservedly won a 2013 Tony Award for Steppenwolf's acclaimed production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and now instead of two couples playing games with each other, she is juggling four frisky pairs of partners in The Qualms. And for the most part, the production briskly moves along as Chris and Kristy get to know everyone. I also want to give kudos to scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, whose attractive beachside apartment made my own partner immediately ask as we sat down, "When can we move in?" However, the main reason to see the play is for the outstanding performances by its engaging ensemble cast. Karen Aldridge, Keith Kupferer, Paul Oakley Stovall and David Pasquesi (who plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus's ex-husband on HBO's Veep) are all very good, while Kate Arrington and especially a scene-stealing Kirsten Fitzgerald made me laugh as well as care about their characters. Unfortunately, I was not as enamored with Greg Stuhr and Diane Davis as Chris and Kristy for different reasons. Chris is annoying right from the beginning, and he only becomes more unbearable as the play goes on. It's a difficult role because the character is so unlikable, and even though Stuhr does his best, I just wanted the antagonistic Chris to go away so the real party could begin. Kristy, on the other hand, is so bland and underwritten that you never understand why she ended up with such an asshole for a husband. I wanted to learn more about Chris and Kristy - and perhaps if Norris had provided further details about these two pivotal characters, the play would have been a thoroughly swinging good time. As it is now, The Qualms is an entertaining but unsatisfying evening that not even a big bowl of banana pudding can improve.

The Qualms runs through August 31 in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre (1650 N. Halsted). For tickets and further information, call the box office at 312-335-1650 or go to steppenwolf.org.

Photos by Michael Brosilow.

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