The plays of Bruce Norris make audiences squirm like a worm on a hook, none more pronounced in achieving this than his Tony and Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park, which nailed gentrification to the wall on Broadway in 2012. His newest for Playwrights Horizons, The Qualms, might be his squirmiest yet—and in some ways—very possibly his best, chronicling the rapid deterioration of a “lifestyle” party in which adventurous couples gather for a little no-judgment frolic.
This being a Bruce Norris play, these folks seem headed for a breakdown right from the start. Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and Kristy (Sarah Goldberg) are the fresh faces at this soiree: a wound-up financial-world whiz and his gorgeous wife initially intrigued by the proceedings, then pushed to the brink when she’s a bit more willing to participate (their recent nuptials are already plagued with trust issues). The hosts are Gary (John Procaccino) and Teri (Kate Arrington), beach types so laid-back their eyes might roll back in their head at any moment. Also on the docket are machismo-filled Roger (The Americans’ Noah Emmerich) and his pompous French partner Regine (Chinasa Ogbuagu), as well as the ravenous, well-meaning, plus-sized Deb (Donna Lynne Champlin) and reflexologist beau Ken (Andy Lucien), who’s her paramour but holding effeminate tendencies that make RuPaul seem like Ron Paul.
Soon enough, after undercooked tenderloin and hastily-made mojitos, Chris and Kristy are faced with whether to join the “party room” festivities (but told to always use coasters in said room, per the hosts, in one of the play’s funniest jokes), and after a few rounds of political nitpicking and wound-opening by all parties (with Chris’s increasing insensitivity throwing salt on said wounds), the night becomes more like a massacre than an orgy that even the nostalgic strains of Duran Duran can’t cure.
The Qualms is not perfect: Chris gets maybe one overdetermined outburst too many (though the terrific Shamos has clearly become Norris’s scabrous white-guy muse), and it seems to possess at least three endings. But the play, written with the author’s typically acute sense of what makes people tick, is as fully alive as Clybourne was, and in some cases, even better. Clybourne was a masterful dual-time look at race and regret, but The Qualms dares to cut even deeper; the jabs to your ribs from laughing can just as easily turn into knives the very next moment, but there’s a recognizably human hue to these people’s behaviors, even at their ugliest.
Much of this success lies in director Pam MacKinnon’s laser-sharp handling of a great ensemble cast (which she also managed with Clybourne), with superb impressions made by all, though Procaccino’s deftly underplayed host and Champlin’s smiley/sad party girl will be awfully hard to forget. Their fine work (and one magnificent, unique use of fourth-wall breaking) underlines the delectable duality that The Qualms provides—that the characters are having one of the worst nights of their lives while you are simultaneously having what is likely to be one of the best. A–