Chicago Theater Review: THE QUALMS (Steppenwolf)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 16, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Chris (Greg Stuhr) and Regine (Karen Aldridge) get intimate in THE QUALMS at Steppenwolf.The Qualms (a cute title that sounds like both a setting and a condition) is basically an Internet forum made flesh, a “truth or dare” confessional in one act. Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s new 90-minute offering from Pulitzer/Tony-winning playwright Bruce Norris is one loud argument divided into eight characters. Four couples in what used to be called a “wife-swapping” club gather in a spiffy condo in a beachside apartment complex. What results is a train wreck in slow motion.

Despite the titillation of the situation, no sexual switcheroos occur. This is more an exercise in intentional, Olympic-size awkwardness, not the busy bedroom farce you might expect. Norris is much more curious about where these polemical partners line up on the issue of monogamy versus promiscuity–as well as penis envy, sexual status-mongering, bondage boundaries, and women as willing trophies for dominant achievers. Then there’s the ugly subject of American sexophobia: One character asserts that a more sexually liberated society would erase the repression which leads to death-machine U.S. wars.

Teri (Kate Arrington) and Gary (Keith Kupferer) endure an awkward moment in THE QUALMS at Steppenwolf.

Norris plots his people on a continuum from puritanical resistance to libertarian excess, which means they scream at each other, glasses get emptied, feelings get hurt, and broken plates get picked up. After the blood-letting calms down, everybody finds common ground by slurping up a bowl of banana pudding.

Regine (Karen Aldridge), Gary (Keith Kupferer), Teri (ensemble member Kate Arrington), Chris (Greg Stuhr), Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Kristy (Diane Davis) in THE QUALMS at Steppenwolf.

On one extreme is clumsy newcomer Chris (Greg Sturhr reinventing defensive embarrassment) who’s mocked and isolated because he believes sex with strangers is just mutual masturbation: Leave love out of it, he urges (which, of course, the other horndogs are quite happy to do). His nemesis is Roger (David Pasquesi at his snidest best), an Alpha aggressor whose gospel is self-indulgence and who considers sex another form of friendship. (Their pissing contest could almost pass for drama if something important were at stake.)

Old friends (left to right) Roger (David Pasquesi), Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall) catch up with one another in THE QUALMS at Steppenwolf.

The other six risk-takers fall somewhere in between, with Kirsten Fitzgerald particularly poignant as a big-boned lady who handles rejection with great class, and Keith Kupferer fulminating as the host with the least.

Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall) share the story of how their relationship began in THE QUALMS at Steppenwolf.

As usual, the showroom set by Todd Rosenthal is gorgeous and worth renting out between performances. Happily, director Pam MacKinnon makes Norris’ fusion of small (sex) talk and shock-effect revelations as large and deep as a competent cast can suggest: characters are insufficiently dramatized, but it’s the cast that makes them real.

Old friends (left to right) Roger (David Pasquesi) and Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) catch up with one another in THE QUALMS at Steppenwolf.

The blocking feels as tight and natural as a cage match. The quiet ending, when these damaged would-be revelers reveal an almost sweet craving for lost innocence, achieves a wistfulness that the screamfest that precedes it has very advertently set up (and off). Well, at least it’s much ado about something and definitely as you like it, even though the play itself is less relevant than the post-show discussion it instigates.

Chris (Greg Stuhr) and Regine (Karen Aldridge) get intimate in THE QUALMS at by Michael Brosilow

The Qualms
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted
scheduled to end on August 31, 2014
for tickets, call 312-335-1650
or visit

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