by Tulis McCall
Every once in awhile there are themes that sweep the theatre scene, as if the authors all sipped the same cocktail a few years ago – because that is how long it takes for a play to get produced. This summer season, it is sex. The hilarious and recently closed Permission, by uptown playwright Robert Askins, exposed Christians exposing their bottoms for a touch of strict punishment. The brave new play Consent by David Rhodes (with a knock-out performance by Catherine Curtin) explores gay male sex and dominance. To round out the picture we now have The Qualms, by Bruce Norris, inviting us into the world of the modern orgy where friends and sexual partners are tossed into a blender and topped off with a sprig of mint.
Gary (John Procaccino) and Teri (Kate Arrington) are the hosts of this month’s get together. Their tasteful beachside apartment/condo is prepped with all the fixin’s. Port Loin, a spread of all the PC food groups and liquor of every sort. Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and Kristy (Sarah Goldberg) are the first to arrive. They are a little on edge. Newly married and going through a rocky patch. And new to this experience. A chance meeting in Cabo introduced them to Teri can Gary. The subject came up because Harry is a walking billboard for coloring outside the monogamy box. An invitation was extended and accepted. But neither of them is quite ready for the actual touchy feely part , which is obvious when Kristi nearly levitates when Harry strokes her alabaster leg. This does not prevent her from accepting a back rub from Teri nor the two women from exiting into the bedroom. And so it begins.
While they are gone the rest of the group arrives, each making an entrance that tells us exactly who is whom. Deb (Donna Lynn Champlin) is a large, gregarious woman and a recent widow. Her partner Ken (Andy Lucien) was the therapist for Debbie’s husband Janosz. After Janosz passed the two grieving folks hooked up. On the surface, Ken’s sexual preference appears to be men, but his actions indicate otherwise.
Regine (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and Roger (Noah Emmerich) arrive separately because they are having one of their arguments that is a constant in their lives.
Once everyone is present Harry reminds them of news and the house rules. Two of their comrades are stranded in Ohio, the idea of which is horrifying. The pool is off limits tonight because of algae. There is a 20 minute limit for couples in the Play Room, 30 minutes for a threesome. Dues are due at the first of the month, payable on the website. Please use your coasters, and in fact try not to have drinks in the party room if you can.
No further business being present – the couples are free to move about the cabin.
All of this feels suspiciously like a members’ meeting at a private summer club (Basin Harbor, anyone?), and in fact that is what it more or less turns out to be. There are wild flung discussions covering everything from same sex relations, homosexuality, bisexuality, the decision each person makes about having sex. The need for an alpha male and his most attractive woman. The nebulizer pot machine cuts down the butane in the marijuana, etc. Etc. Etc. This is all fast paced and overlaid conversation that is executed with precision and ensemble work that makes it all look so, so easy. The only fly in the ointment is Chris who is intent on not having a very good time and clings to his bottle of Cabernet like a man at sea with a bouy. The combination of his paranoia and the group’s need for new meat makes him the butt of a few too many jokes, and this exacerbates the already tense situation.
The night moves on and the group continues to talk so much that you begin to wonder if they are ever going to have sex at all. The verbal sparring is superb, and remains so during the entire 90 minutes of this play. No, one, however, makes a break for the Play Room and eventually it does make a person wonder if maybe the orgy part of the evening was misunderstood.
When things finally do start to simmer it is sensual to be sure, but there is not one kiss that makes it past first base. And in point of fact that is more or less okay, because old Chris blows his top when Regine gets a little too close and a little too dangerous (like the kissing, the danger here was not believable). Chris bounces off the wall. The evening begins to go off track and eventually dissolves into a wreck. When Deb does her best to console Chris, his response takes the evening directly into the toilet.
This is not a group that gives up without a fight, however, and the ensuing confrontations, apologies, arguments et al leave them all vulnerable and visible. As are we ourselves.
The performances are each exquisite. The ensemble work and the direction are smooth as a baby’s bottom. While Kate Arrington as Teri leads the band with her disarming and slightly dizzy personae, each of these characters arrives fully formed and ready to take no prisoners.
The absence of sex makes this party more or less the equivalent of a heated bridge tournament, but hey – in the end who cares? Like the saying goes – it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion that makes your mama want to rock. This production rocks.
The Qualms By Bruce Norris; directed by Pam MacKinnon
WITH: Kate Arrington (Teri), Donna Lynne Champlin (Deb), Noah Emmerich (Roger), Sarah Goldberg (Kristy), Julian Leong (Delivery Guy), Andy Lucien (Ken), Chinasa Ogbuagu (Regine), John Procaccino (Gary) and Jeremy Shamos (Chris).
Sets by Todd Rosenthal; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Russell H. Champa; sound by Rick Sims; production stage manager, Cole P. Bonenberger; associate artistic director, Adam Greenfield. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director; Leslie Marcus, managing director; Carol Fishman, general manager. At Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, Clinton, 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org. Through July 12. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.