By: David Sheward
We don’t always play well with others. That’s the common theme of two Off-Broadway productions in which the characters clash but the actors mesh with near perfection. Bruce Norris’ The Qualms is set at a beachside group sex party while Anne Washburn’s 10 Out of 12 takes place at an endless tech rehearsal for an avant-garde New York show. Both display how an odd man out can gum up the works and cause the entire temporary community to examine their motives for joining in. Both plays have flaws, but their casts and directors find the connections and passions within each.
In Norris’ clever comedy at Playwrights Horizons, uptight newlyweds Chris and Kristy join a club of veteran swingers for an evening of debauchery. But uptight Chris spoils the evening when his jealous anger at Kristy boils out in all directions, spewing lava-like rage on the fun-loving spouse-swappers. The couples clash and explode, finally quietly cleaning up the debris and sharing sex stories over banana pudding.
As he did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, Norris probes the explosive emotions just beneath the polite surface and records the fallout when they break through. In the earlier play it was racial tensions and prejudices getting the grilling, here it’s sexual attitudes and repressions. The context seems a bit dated. I can recall "swinging" was a hot topic at the height of the sexual revolution in the early 1970s with TV comedy sketches about staid suburban couples trading car keys. There was a skit on trading bed partners in the nudie revue Oh! Calcutta! and even an Emmy-winning episode of All in the Family with Archie and Edith Bunker unknowingly inviting a pair of swingers (played by Vincent Guardina and Rue McClanahan) into their Queens home.
Aside from the datedness of the concept, my central qualm with Qualms is the protagonist Chris. If he’s such a tightly-wound prude, what’s he doing at this libidinous get-together in the first place. Norris offers the excuse that he’s angry with Kristy from going to lunch with a former lover without telling him, but it seems a weak motivation for such a drastic step. Fortunately Chris is played by Jeremy Shamos, who gave dimension to a similar asshole in Cylbourne. He almost succeeds in making Chris’ contradictory behavior plausible, but not quite. The rest of the ensemble, unburdened by such heavy demands, turns in wildly funny and touching performances, particularly Donna Lynn Champlin as the overweight, fun-loving Deb and Kate Arrington as the airheaded Teri, particularly in a detailed monologue of a haphazard sexual history.
Norris does create hilarious conflict and dialogue, staged with just the right amount of increasing intensity by Pam MacKinnon who also skillfully directed the domestic warfare in Clybourne.
Washburn’s 10 Out of 12 at Soho Rep has similar fireworks with the cast and crew of a pretentious Off-Off-Broadway play enduring the stress of an interminable tech rehearsal. The title refers to the amount of hours that can be devoted to rehearsing under union rules. Audience members are given headsets so they can listen in on the snarky chatter of the stage manager and techies. Anyone who’s ever done a show will get a giggle of recognition from the multiple slip-ups, delays, resettings, and arguments, but it’s all a bit too "insider baseball" for non-theater types, and the premise wears a bit thin at two and a half hours.
There is a shattering scene in which longtime actor Paul unleashes a tantrum over what he regards as the deficiencies of the playwright and the director. His scene partner Ben calms Paul down with the observation that nothing in life is ever perfect, there will always be something lacking and we have to do the best we can. It’s a perfect evocation of the futility and love theatrical practitioners bring to their craft, beautifully played by Thomas Jay Ryan as Paul and Gibson Frazier as Ben.
Director Les Waters, sound designer Bray Poor and lighting designer Justin Townsend make brilliant sense of the chaos of Washburn’s Altman-esque script as endless sound and light cues pile up, creating a mosaic of impressions and a prismatic view of a communal experience.
The Qualms ***
June 14-July 12. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue., Wed., 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. $75. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.
Photo: Joan Marcus
10 Out of 12 ***
June 10-July 18. Soho Repertory, 46 Walker St., NYC. Tue.-Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m. Running time: two hours and 40 mins. including intermission. $35-$75. (866) 811-4111 or www.ovationtix.com.
Photo: Julieta Cervantes