Steppenwolf's comic 'Qualms' flirts with questions of sexual freedom

Regular readers of Dan Savage's syndicated sex advice column Savage Love know all too well about the many dicey issues of intimacy and intolerance explored in "The Qualms," Bruce Norris' seventh world premiere for Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

But for those who don't follow the column, "The Qualms" will probably provoke quite a few shocked gasps as Norris masterfully pits traditional views of marriage and monogamy against the idea of "polyamory," or relationships with multiple sexual partners. And like so many of Norris' previous controversy-courting works, "The Qualms" is jam-packed with uncomfortable situations that not only make you roar with laughter, but also might make you cringe.

"The Qualms" largely focuses on Chris (a tightly-wound Greg Stuhr) and Kristy (a surprisingly amenable Diane Davis), a married couple who have willingly entered into a lion's den of a suburban swingers party.

As first-time participants, Chris and Kristy are both excited and apprehensive. Unmarried hosts Gary (a humorously earthy Keith Kupferer) and Teri (Kate Arrington, in an initially comical new-age mode) do their best to prep the new guests about what and where certain activities may happen in their spacious beachfront home (a wonderfully realistic and envious piece of real estate created by set designer Todd Rosenthal).

But as the other party participants trickle in, Chris increasingly finds himself to be the odd man out. Not only are his opinions repeatedly dismissed or corrected (even when they are true), but he increasingly becomes uncomfortable and aggravated when his traditional matrimonial views bubble up and burst against the laissez-faire attitudes that dominate at the swingers' gathering.

Director Pam MacKinnon - a 2013 Tony Award-winner for her acclaimed revival of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" - works wonders again here with her stellar "Qualms" cast members, who deliver Norris' smart and explicit dialogue (and fraught silences) with an ease and natural delivery. You get the sense that you might encounter people like these, so it's extremely entertaining to see how they work out their many differences - or don't, as the case may be.

Kirsten Fitzgerald is a delight as Deb, a plus-size woman who freely boasts about her sexual prowess. She's paired with the wonderfully blasé Paul Oakley Stovall as her lover, Ken, whose slightly effeminate mannerisms make Chris suspicious of his sexuality.

David Pasquesi is arrogantly imperious as the stylish Gulf War veteran Roger, while Karen Aldridge brings a sexy, worldly sophistication to her French-Polynesian character of Regine.

For a comedy centered all around sex, Norris and MacKinnon actually place very little of it onstage. In fact, the one sex act that does occur might pass you by if you're not closely paying attention. And through a breezy 90 minutes, Norris lays it all out there with button-pushing glee without necessarily taking sides on sexual issues and questions of possessiveness, jealousy, tolerance and human nature.

Some may view "The Qualms" as a lesser work by Norris, author of "The Pain and the Itch" from 2004 and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Clybourne Park." While he has previously explored weightier topics like torture, racism and gentrification, "The Qualms" does prod questions about how people embody their sexuality and try to impose their views on what they see as right or wrong. In the end, "The Qualms" begs the question: Are you in the live-and-let-live camp - or not?

Regine (Karen Aldridge) makes sexual overtures to Chris (Greg Stuhr) at a suburban swingers party in the world premiere of Bruce Norris' “The Qualms” at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Regine (Karen Aldridge) and her boyfriend, Roger (David Pasquesi), are unhappy about the turn of events at a suburban swingers party in the world premiere of Bruce Norris' “The Qualms” at Steppenwolf Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) playfully chats with Roger (David Pasquesi) as Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall) looks on in the world premiere of Bruce Norris' “The Qualms” at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

“The Qualms”

★ ★ ★ ½

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (7:30 p.m. Sunday shows end Aug. 17), 2 p.m. Wednesday matinees begin Aug. 13, through Aug. 31.

Tickets: $20-$86

Running time: About 90 minutes with no intermission

Parking: Street parking and nearby pay garages

Rating: For mature audiences only: features drug use, language and highly sexualized situations and dialogue

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