Friday, June 5, 2015

The Qualms at Playwrights Horizon

What would a trip to New York be without some theater?  Happily, I was able to piggyback on Wendi’s subscription to Playwrights Horizon to see the engaging and conversation-provoking production of The Qualms by Bruce Norris. 

Playwrights Horizon is “a writer’s theater dedicated to the support and development of contemporary playwrights…and to the production of their new work.”  The theater’s 44 year track record is impressive. Six Pulitzer Prize winners can be counted among its progeny, including Norris’ Clybourne Park.  To add to the anticipation, Wendi had chosen with a performance with a talkback featuring PH’s artistic director Tim Sanford, director Pam MacKinnon and Norris himself.  

The Qualms is a one scene, 94 minute play that tells the story of a get-together of four swinging couples.  Correction -- three swinging couples and one couple exploring the idea. The ‘70s concept of throwing keys into a bowl and drawing the keys of your partner for the evening was given a nod with a bowl where cell phones were laid to rest.  It was up to the club “members,” however, to figure out who would head off with whom. 

I don’t want to say too much about the play because I expect that, like Clybourne Park, it will have an extended run in New York followed by productions in regional theaters. I can tell you, though, that Norris explores the topic with a huge amount of humor while raising the question of why partner swapping is appealing to some people.  And while this might not sound like an issue that would resonate, Wendi and I found ourselves (and Lee, who didn’t see the show) still talking the next day about polygamy, polyamorous relationships, “wife” swapping and old-fashioned monogamy. 
The stellar and highly credentialed cast deserves mention.  The actors worked as a true ensemble, with all eight actors onstage for almost the entire show.  While I didn’t recognize the name Jeremy Shamos, I recognized his face (although I can’t say whether it was from theater or TV shows like “The Good Wife” and “Elementary”).  Shamos was wonderful as the uptight newcomer to the group. Donna Lynne Champlin seemed to channel Melissa McCarthy in her role as the overweight participant who’s found acceptance. Champlin too has appeared in “The Good Wife” and is in the new show “Younger.” And it was fun to see Noah Emmerich, who plays FBI agent Stan Beeman in “The Americans,” in a different persona.  

Pam MacKinnon, Bruce Norris and Tim Sanford
The talkback provided some wonderful insights into the inspiration for the play and some of the challenges in its mounting.  Norris explained that he had seen the documentary “The Lifestyle” more than a dozen years ago and couldn’t figure out why it troubled him so much. He’s a liberal guy and generally takes a “live and let live” attitude. 

Although Norris ultimately comes down against "swinging," Norris views the practice as both a hopeful and utopian approach to the world.  Doesn't it ignore human nature, though, he asked?  Isn't it complicated enough to try and manage one relationship?  (At this juncture Norris shared a hilarious story of his fourth grade "girlfriend" who scarred him for life when she broke up with him by throwing his ID bracelet at him during crossing guard duty.  He apparently wasn't capable of living up to her expectations.) 
MacKinnon's directorial perspective on the play was fascinating.  She talked about directing the actors’ simultaneous conversations as being akin to conducting an eight piece chamber orchestra.  The "note"/actor whose voice is loudest at the end becomes the person the audience naturally follows, so she played with that during the rehearsal process. Click here to read more from MacKinnon and Norris about the show. 

The Qualms  is a thoroughly engaging show with or without the treat of a post-show talkback.  If you're in the New York area between now and July 12, get to Playwrights Horizon to check it out.  And I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a regional run in the not-too-distant future. 

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