Tim Sanford on The Qualms
One of the most distinctive aspects of Bruce Norris’s The Qualms can be ascertained visually just by skimming through the script. Every couple of pages you will find occasions where four or five characters speak simultaneously, represented in the script by those characters’ names spanning across one line. One can virtually feel the hew and outcry these various moments represent. What on earth could incite all this tumult? Well the answer is, of course, “sex.”
Norris has actually made a specialty of locating the hot buttons in any topic. And whatever hypocrisies, or self-delusions, or paradoxes that might lie within, he will be sure to unearth. Midway through The Qualms some of these paradoxes are identified and voiced aloud as part of the gathering argument of the play. “There are more church-goers in America than any other Western Country. But we are also the largest consumer of pornography.” Most of the characters in The Qualms choose to reject this hypocrisy by espousing a practice of free love they self-describe as “the Lifestyle.” They get together on occasional weekends for what looks like a regular barbeque get-together, except every once in a while, two or more of them repair to the “Party Room.” Two newcomers enter this scene, Chris and Kristy, relative newlyweds, and we quickly learn something is going on between them. Kristy apparently had lunch with an ex-beau a few weeks ago, and Chris seems to have seized the opportunity to attend this event as if on a dare. But the longer he stays, and the closer they come to the appointed activity, the more belligerent he becomes.
The more the characters reveal to us the various reasons they are all attracted to the Lifestyle, the more we come to understand how personal and diverse these reasons are. Sure, most of them espouse a certain degree of idealism about the virtues of non-possessiveness, but they are not ideologues. (Well, maybe one of them is.) They are complex, struggling individuals, seeking their own brand of intimacy with each other. And I think one of the aspects of the simultaneously spoken lines is to indicate this multiplicity of views. But Chris’s views, which he sputters with increasing bluster and dogmatism, keep spinning off inarticulately. He wants to represent the moral stance, but finds he can’t do so without hurting people. Norris sculpts the climactic mayhem that ensues with his customary dexterity. And as is often the case with Norris’s work, we feel grateful in the end for his determination to lay bare the unexamined knee-jerk attitudes that masquerade as moral convictions in many of us. Yet, I think the note this play ends on is an underappreciated hallmark of his best work. He depicts most of the characters in The Qualms warmly. His characters really just want to connect in their own ways and make some sense of their lives and find some kind of trust and enjoyment. The final tableau of the play is almost touching.