Why do married — or otherwise committed — couples go to sex parties? One obvious reason presents itself. But the characters in the new black comedy "The Qualms" — set amid a little clutch of mostly miserable middle-aged Midwestern swingers, and the latest Steppenwolf Theatre Company world premiere from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Clybourne Park" — do not so much seem fired by erotic energy as by their formidable mutual collection of crippling neuroses.
When they could be diving into the fruit bowl full of condoms, they instead devote time to a discussion of the finer points of republics versus democracies. They debate the power dynamics of pornography and the morality of its consumption. They muse about the purpose (or lack thereof) of marriage. They confess personal sexual histories with the embarrassed awkwardness of adolescents drunk on three-buck Chuck. When given the chance to have a few hours of consequence-free fun in the "party room," they kvetch, bicker and do pretty much everything and anything but achieve a modicum of sensual fulfillment.
To some degree, that's the main point of Bruce Norris' play, which has as its thesis the notion that Americans are pathologically incapable of talking about sex, or having much fun doing it. "We prefer death," observes one of these wild-and-crazy partygoers.
Norris gets the action going by focusing on a newbie to the scene — an argumentative fellow named Chris (Greg Stuhr) who arrives with his dangerously pretty wife Kristy (Diane Davis) at a little orgy hosted by his casual acquaintances Teri (Kate Arrington) and Gary (Keith Kupferer). The genial if quotidian hosts have assembled a motley crew of their regulars: Regine (Karen Aldridge), a sexual sophisticate who speaks French and wears stockings; Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald), a Realtor-type whose house is always open; Roger (David Pasquesi), a sardonic aggressor with a cruel streak; and Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall), a handsome dude who may be pansexually free or may just be in some elaborate closet of his own construction.
Chris (Stuhr's performance is terrific) is clearly an authorial alter ego — the kind of guy who walks into a party and immediately argues about its very premise, driving everyone else crazy as he thoroughly kills everything by opinionated overanalysis. At this point in his career, Norris is a shrewd, self-protecting writer who knows that it's safer to make the white, loud-mouthed, middle-aged guy the most pathetic figure in the room (granted, we usually are), and, to some degree, "The Qualms" is the latest in this author's singular series of sharp takedowns of the chatty, self-serving, wine-swilling liberal elite who, to paraphrase the Bard, hath ever but slenderly known themselves, sexually or otherwise. There are many amusing provocations in "The Qualms," which is often funny and never dull, even if you could not care two figs for any of these characters, which I think is a significant problem.
"The Qualms" does not yet feel finished. Both the play and the production need to at least establish the possibility of sexual desire before they can set about its wholesale deconstruction. At this juncture, you never understand why Chris and Kristy, a couple already dealing with jealousy issues, have even walked through the door. Kristy, forged with real complexity by Davis and potentially the most interesting character of the bunch, is chronically underwritten.
Sex parties like this may be full of complicated folks working out this, that and the other, but it's a incontrovertible truth of such gatherings that sex is in the room. It may be headed for the rocks, but desire, at the very least, has to raise its sail.
No masts fly here. Norris has made his play about swinging so un-swinging that it comes dangerously close to attacking its own premise, the reason everyone is in the room. To put this another way: An entirely desexualized play about sex misses its own point.
For sure, plays about sex at this level of detailed, this-goes-into-that-and-I-worry-about-the-other analysis are not easy to stage. Unless carefully crafted, nudity (of which there is none in this play) tends to put you in mind of the actor, not the character. Simulated sex (of which there is a little, but none of it feels real) is fiendishly difficult to stage without cameras. Audience members inevitably spend time looking at each other, checking reactions. Plays about sex have to snap them back.
"The Qualms" has to deal with all those challenges of its own creation, and director Pam MacKinnon makes a start, but you never get the sense that the actors have taken the necessary vow of total engagement, nor really confronted the play's need for vulnerability, which is true of all Norris' plays, even if that is not immediately evident in the rehearsal room.
Norris and MacKinnon could fix that with some judicious rewrites and emotional recentering, I think, especially by focusing more on the sexual curiosity of his central couple and, with the help of MacKinnon and these clearly capable actors, Norris could leaven all the talk about sex with a stronger sense of how even neurotics have their passions.
The last few minutes of the fast-moving 90-minute show — staged on a hyperrealistic set by Todd Rosenthal, replete with the inevitable stainless-steel grill, that all-purpose symbol of indulgence — are the most problematic. The farcical energy that sustains MacKinnon's production dissipates into characters standing still and spouting confessional truisms like they're all suddenly characters in "A Chorus Line." That jars. At the very least, the play, which I think is savvy and promising, has to push through to its own climax.
"The Qualms" does feature one of the most bizarre theater lobby displays I've ever seen — curtained booths inviting you to share your own thoughts on matters erotic. A word to the wise: If you want to make your sexual confession, I wouldn't do it at Steppenwolf. The very thought makes me shudder.
When: Through Aug. 31
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20-$86 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org