The Qualms

by Jona Tarlin · June 15, 2015

the qualms

Kate Arrington, Jeremy Shamos, Sarah Goldberg | Joan Marcus

You have been invited to sit in on a most uncomfortable orgy. Each couple that arrives broadening the discourse on gender, sex, race, and monogamy until it all goes to hell and no one gets laid. 

Our introduction to the orgy comes via the beautiful set by Todd Rosenthal, a perfectly generic condo created with an eye for detail. This is no dungeon, and we will never see the theoretically appropriately named “party room”. These are not porn stars; these are your neighbors having sex. 

This type of fourth wall naturalistic play automatically sets the audience as voyeurs, an act that author Bruce Norris does not explore, instead presenting the conversational equivalent of bad sex. There is the verbal foreplay of the guests arriving, food being served, and a flowing discussion that builds until it explodes into one of the most uncomfortable, squirm inducing monologues I have ever witnessed. 

That is definitely a compliment and one of the wonderful things about theater; moments like these are infinitely more visceral than anything on a screen. There is no barrier of protection, no ability to shut it off. The audience and actors are present in a shared space and the gasps heard spoke to the power of that communal experience. 

This is not a play filled with rich characters. They are well observed and feel true enough that they do not ring false but ultimately I did not find myself being gripped by their plights. This is a play about the ideas being discussed and in that sense it is very successful. 

In fact there is a sly bit of subversion, as the traditional audience surrogate, the white male who is new to the orgy and therefore figuring out its rules as we do, reveals himself to be the antagonist when his beliefs are challenged by the reality of the orgy. 

He has, as his wife says, “been a little obsessed with the whole concept” ever since the night’s host floated the idea when they met on vacation. This clash of expectation and actuality spiral into a level of audience disgust and derision I have rarely seen on a stage. It is gutsy to write and amazingly gutsy to play, something the actor and Bruce Norris veteran, Jeremy Shamos does wonderfully. 

Donna Lynne Champlin as Deb is also a standout, but it is befitting the ensemble nature of the play that the cast is uniformly excellent. The direction by Pam MacKinnon is also accomplished, finding a way to juggle four couples on a set with lots of overlapping dialogue and not have it feel muddled. 

I liked this play much more than the previous Shamos, MacKinnon, and Norris collaboration Clybourne Park. While that play felt like it was overly congratulatory of itself while asking no new questions, this play shook up the audience and I found myself afterwards asking how I would react in this type of situation and where amongst the different characters would I fall in my level of openness. 

And I’m a fan of any play that leaves me something to chew on after the actors have bowed and the curtain has gone down.






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