“Clybourne Park” Author Bruce Norris Goes to a Partner-Swapping Party

A newly married couple experiments with “the lifestyle” in “The Qualms,” a new and—am I blushing?—discomforting play by Bruce Norris. The one-act drama is having its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, where Norris again teams with his “Clybourne Park” director, Pam MacKinnon.

Here, Norris does with sexual mores and the idea of free love precisely what he did in his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play about race relations—he brings together a group of articulate adults and drops them in ideological quicksand.

The setting this time is a modern beach house. Months earlier, Chris and Kristy (Jeremy Shamos and Sarah Goldberg) met Gary and Teri (John Procaccino and Kate Arrington) on holiday in Cabo. Now, the latter couple has invited the former to one of their regular partner-swapping soirees.

Chris and Kristy hadn’t thought through the consequences of the get-together, and inevitably disturb the equilibrium. Gary and Teri, meanwhile, are the couple who want everyone to be relaxed. When circumstances inevitably force Gary to plead with everyone to chill out, he’s made to sound like a zonked-out hippie.

Two other couples are on hand: Roger and Regine (Noah Emmerich and Chinasa Ogbuagu, below) are interested in liberty for its own sake, and for seeking out a partner’s inhibitions. Deb and Ken (Donna Lynne Champlin and Andy Lucien) feel marginalized as a large woman and a black man, and are eager to own the full range of their own sexuality.

The main question we’re contemplating is about sexual desire, and whether it “must” be linked to romantic and emotional commitment. Chris is Team Monogamy all the way, and he doesn’t make any friends in this room. Everyone else here (well, save for Kristy, who is more open-minded than her husband, but still finds things odd) claims to have decoupled pleasure and commitment.

Norris respectfully illustrates many points along a complicated spectrum, ultimately forcing hard questions: Are we somehow short-changing ourselves if we’re not attracted to all genders, ethnicities and orientations? Or, when we choose monogamy, are we just being true to our own selves by setting boundaries?

The production art for “The Qualms”—the silhouette of two simians, copulating—is eye-catching, but more suggestive than what’s depicted on stage. (There is a brief scene of simulated oral sex; otherwise, “The Qualms” is more talk than action.)

Norris is a clear-eyed guide though tough material. The performances (especially by Tony-nominee Shamos) are interesting. On the way out of the theater, I overheard a woman say: “I’m so glad I didn’t bring my mom to this!” I’m glad I didn’t bring my mom, too. But if you go see “The Qualms,” see it with someone you love—or someone you want to.

“The Qualms,” through July 12 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $75-$90. Call 212-279-4200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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