In “The Qualms,” Chris (Greg Stuhr) is uneasy about the lifestyle favored by Regine (Karen Aldridge) and the other party guests. | MICHAEL BROSILOW
When: Through Aug. 31
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets : $20-$86
Info: (312) 335-1650;
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Updated: July 13, 2014 8:44PM
Before discussing all that is off-putting about “The Qualms,” the smug but vacuous play by Bruce Norris now in its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, a definition might be in order.
The dictionary explains the title as “uneasy feelings of doubt, worry, or fear, especially about one’s own conduct; a misgiving.” It is derived from the Old English “cwealm” (death or plague) and related to the Old High German “qualm” (despair).
Now, to the char-grilled meat of the matter: Had I taken my seat at Steppenwolf not knowing “The Qualms” was a new play, I would have thought someone had opened a time capsule from the late 1960s and decided to give the script an airing for laughs, or that some grad student who had just encountered “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” — Paul Mazursky’s 1969 film about middle-class couples engaged in spouse-swapping in the heat of the sexual revolution — had decided to give it a contemporary reworking. And the response would have been: Why bother? It’s all so old, so obvious.
By the end of the play’s torturously unfunny, thuddingly heavy-handed 90 minutes, a few additional questions came to mind: Who ARE these people in Norris’ play, which has been directed by Pam MacKinnon (recipient of the Tony Award for the Broadway transfer of her Steppenwolf revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”), and why should we care about any of them for even 90 SECONDS? Why waste eight talented actors on such a trivial examination of sex, marriage, monogamy, consumerism, race, physical attractiveness, pornography and conservative vs. liberal values? And most crucially, does the cast head into the wings after each performance and polish off all the uneaten (but appealing) food served onstage, or does it just drown its sorrows in drink?
The setting is a large, upscale apartment in a beachside complex and, as always, set designer Todd Rosenthal nails the environment, complete with grandiose gas grill on the patio.
The owners of the apartment are Gary (Keith Kupferer) and his flaky wife, Teri (Kate Arrington), who are throwing what turns out to be a fairly routine get-together with friends that involves your garden variety of weekend entertainment — eating, drinking, drugging by way of an electric hookah and partner swapping.
The notably (and thankfully) childless “regulars” include: Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald), a plus-size woman whose husband has recently died and who has since taken up with his physical therapist, Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall), a hunky pan-sexual (but stereotypically gay) man, as well as Roger (David Pasquesi), a dyspeptic type who claims he fought in Kuwait, and his partner, Regine (Karin Aldridge), a French-accented woman from Martinique who quickly puts on an outfit straight out of “Venus in Fur.”
The “newcomers” to the party, where everyone French kisses at first sight, are Chris (Greg Stuhr), who works in finance, and his wife, Kristy (Diane Davis), neither of whom seem wholly comfortable with pursuing the activities on offer. A less than charismatic guy, Chris is bullied for his resistance to the trendy “anything goes” approach to life. Oddly enough, he doesn’t flee the party, but he does finally speak out in favor of the value of restraint and commitment, even if his marriage seems unstable.
A more unlikable, screwed up, overprivileged group of people would be difficult to imagine. And while Norris (author of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play “Clybourne Park”) clearly means to satirize them, they are so vapid and one-dimensional they are not worth thinking about.