I once wrote a profile on Bruce Norris for Chicago magazine. This was about eight years ago—after he’d pissed people off with evil-minded satires like The Pain and the Itch, but before they anointed him with a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for Clybourne Park. The profile (which, I have to say, is very good) examines Norris’s perverse charm. He’s quoted at one point saying that Steppenwolf Theatre artistic director Martha Lavey “has referred to me as a ‘perseverator’: I enjoy things that are hectoring and terrierlike [and] refuse to drop the topic. I’ve driven people away from dinner tables. If I get something stuck in my ass that I refuse to let go of, it’s horrible—and yet it’s thrilling for me to hammer someone. . . . To have them cave. Just to scourge them of their folly.”
I bring this up because there’s a truly formidable perseverator at the heart of Norris’s latest, The Qualms, the fascinating world premiere now running at Steppenwolf.
His name is Chris, and he gets quite a few things stuck in his ass over the course of the 90-minute one-act, causing seven other people no end of grief. The comic irony is that Chris has chosen to do his perseverating at a swingers party. Yes, these folks are gathered for an evening of food, fun, and fucking, and all he wants to do is scourge them of their folly. Talk about inappropriate.
To be fair, Chris (Greg Stuhr) finds himself at the party under something resembling false pretenses. He and wife Kristy (Diane Davis) met their hosts, Gary and Teri, outside the context of what’s called the “lifestyle,” while on vacation in Cabo. Played by Chicago’s quintessential interpreter of regular guys, Keith Kupferer, Gary is more amiable than hot; Teri, on the other hand, is the stuff of fantasy. As embodied by Kate Arrington, she’s good-looking in a check-all-the-right-boxes sort of way, sure—but also radiates that New Age dippiness middle-aged men used to value so highly in hippie chicks. (What? You mean you’d really have sex with an old man like me?) Chris apparently pictured a straight wife-for-wife swap with Gary. But then everybody else showed up.
And what a bunch they are. If Teri is Chris’s wet dream of sanctioned infidelity, her friends are neatly calibrated to trigger his most uptight nightmares. Deb is fat, loud, overly familiar, and come-to-mama uncouth, calling Chris a “cutie patootie” and referring to Kristy as his “lady.” She arrives with her “big, chocolate Nubian god,” Ken, whose fey mannerisms scare the hell out of Chris. Then there’s Regine, of French-Caribbean extraction, with an accent and a taste for scenarios out of The Story of O to prove it. Regine’s mate is Roger, who probably read Atlas Shrugged at an impressionable age and took it deeply to heart. Roger is smug, territorial, and an energetic perseverator in his own right.
These folks are organized. They pay dues, announce future events, and limit party-room time to 20 minutes for couples, 30 for threesomes. They put out artichoke dip and grill pork tenderloin with a smoky chipotle rub. They’ve got a nebulizer.
They’ve got ideology, too. Gary rails against the “binary fantasy” of marriage, arguing that it’s just part of the plot to bind the masses to consumer culture. (“We got rid of our TV,” adds the ever-supportive Teri.) Regine is big on the evolutionary struggle for sexual dominance. There’s the Americans-hate-sex speech. The we’re-all-just-meat speech. The we-should-be-free-to-fuck-cows-if-we-want-to speech. Even a “spooge”-on-your-face-as-a-beautiful-act-of-submission speech. (Teri: “You know, it’s actually good for your skin.”)
All of which drives Chris sputteringly crazy as he withdraws further and further into his inner control freak, deeper and deeper into his perseverating refusal to laugh and let it go. Or to recognize his own absurdity, for that matter. The party gets out of hand.
It’s pretty delicious—and not in Norris’s typically cruel way. With The Qualms he begins to look like the most Wildean satirist maybe since Wilde, taking obvious pleasure not just in skewering social types and ideas but in treating them almost—almost—sympathetically, as manifestations of a flawed and very amusing humanity. Indeed, there’s a distinct mellowing here. Little devices—like the fact that Chris and Kristy can’t leave until Kristy changes her clothes, and she can’t change her clothes because they’re in the party room, where Deb is crying—suggest that Norris is no longer seeing his characters, simply, as anger machines. He makes provision for dignity and vulnerability to a degree that I can’t recall him doing before.
He almost certainly couldn’t have accomplished that without ace director Pam MacKinnon and an astonishing supporting cast whose members absolutely refuse to portray swinging as a joke. Or, more accurately, as anything less than a rich, subtle, complex joke. Karen Aldridge is at once playful and fiercely earnest, even in a bustier, as Regine. Paul Oakley Stovall’s Ken displays all the insouciance of a Nubian god while subverting Chris’s various misconceptions about him. David Pasquesi tells us all we need to know about Roger the alpha male with the snide way he asks, “What do you do, Chris?” And I’d pay to see 90 minutes of Kristen Fitzgerald alone on a stage as Deb, the character is so engaging and supple and—despite Chris’s no-fatties prejudice—attractive.