Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Qualms

Photo: Joan Marcus
Bruce Norris can write. His dialogue crackles, his jokes mostly land, and occasionally he creates surprisingly vivid, three-dimensional characters. He's also a polemicist, and while he's less didactic -- and far less capital-S Serious -- than present-day windbag David Mamet, it's always clear that he has a point to put across, and he won't rest until you get it. This usually results in his plays, at some point, devolving from breezy, mildly unsettling evenings into a full-on death match, in which the characters basically form a circle and start berating each other. (For reference, see: pretty much the entire second act of his Pulitzer Prize winner, Clybourne Park). Again, this is not to say that the man's without talent. It's just that some people are better at using the sugar to make the medicine go down.

Norris' latest, The Qualms (at Playwrights Horizons through July 12), has a lot going for it. For my money, it boasts the tightest acting ensemble currently treading boards in New York. The action -- no pun intended -- centers around a beachfront condo where a group of middle-aged, well-to-do suburbanites have gathered to swap partners. Most of the guests are old pros; the too-cutely named Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and Kristy (Sarah Goldberg) are the newbs. Kristy hooks up with the host's partner (the brilliant Kate Arrington) within the first five minutes of the play; Chris spends the full ninety minutes resenting the entire arrangement, despite the fact it's implied that the idea to attend was his. 

As Wendy implies in her review, Chris' attitude and "truth telling" provides the impetus for the play. In succession, each of the rest of the characters basically gets to trot out their worldview relative to his negativity. Host Gary (John Procaccino) makes the historical argument against monogamy. Ex-military Roger (Noah Emmerich, oozing bravado) espouses sexual libertarianism. Intellectual, European Regine (the terrific Chinasa Ogbuago) believes monogamy subjugates women. Norris convincingly -- and entertainingly -- renders these points of view, but he also can't help preaching.

Under Pam MacKinnon's brisk direction, the cast shines. Shamos' stock and trade is the straight man; he's plied it well in many previous plays, including the aforementioned Clybourne Park. He brings more shading to Chris than what's to be found in the writing, a testament to his talent. Though there really is no weak link, Arrington (who does ditz brilliantly, culminating in a breathless, mesmerizing monologue that alternately had me gasping for air and fighting tears) and Donna Lynne Champlin (as a supremely confident plus-sized widow dying to show Chris the ropes) are first among equals. The set (by Todd Rosenthal) makes great use of Playwrights Horizons' large, deep stage.

The Qualms works really well in the room. However, the more I think about it, the less I respond to it. Judge for yourself, and enjoy the great acting while you're there.

[TDF, sixth row center]

1 comment:

Danny said...

Loved you website! I am reaching out to you as a fellow thespian. I am part of a community based theatre group in the Pacific Northwest that has been going for 30+ years. As you know, after that long of a run everything starts to fall into a state of disrepair. I am hoping you will help us spread the word about our kickstarter campaign to keep music alive and kicking in the boondocks. Here is the link: Every bit helps and it would be appreciated if you shared it with everyone. Thanks for your time!