Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Qualms at Steppenwolf

Saw Bruce Norris's new play The Qualms at Steppenwolf on Wednesday. Much enjoyed the production while I was watching it. It kept me thoroughly entertained on a philosophical and comedic level. The acting was superb. The design appropriate. (Side: It might be my ignorance to what goes into design that makes me think this, but doesn't it kind of seem "appropriate" the only compliment for design 99% of the time? The 1% is for The Lion King and, like, reboots of Shakespeare done underwater.) Anyway, I was happy to be seated, not at all willing this play about swingers to be over before it had run its 90 minute course. Nor after really. And yet, what I left with was very little.

Norris's most famous work Clybourne Park is still nestled in my ribs when I consider the city of Chicago, gentrification, and the times that are generally a changin'. I left the theatre after Park with new opinions and questions, an open brain, and a lot of respect for the script itself. This summer night it was all too easy to pass the Crate and Barrel with Bisque and spend the entire walk from theatre to red line gabbing about how much we covet the blocky parsons table we pretended to be interested in there when we were really just trying to use the bathroom but then actually fell in love with the dang thing. It wasn't until we were downtown about to make our connection I was like, "Oh yeah, what did you think of the play?"

Here's what I thought of it: P. lazy. Keep in mind, there were parts that were masterful, and who am I to talk, right? I know "everybody's a critic" but everybody's also in the audience, and can't help having opinions.

Some characters were truly charming, yes, but what did it all add up to? I'm a champion for plays that are a lot of talking and not much of getting somewhere, but this was a lot of talking that wasn't particularly new. Maybe that's my bias as a 20something who knows a bunch of polyamourous people/couples. I've thought about it all before. I've asked the questions, shared my qualms (har) and nodded carefully. There was not a single viewpoint brought up in TQ that I hadn't heard at least a few dozen times before.

To be fair, in the program interview, Norris mentions how kind of dumb it is people think of this play as "dirty" when all other art forms have launched so much farther down the contemporary sordid path. Theatre is being left in the dust of what is taboo relevant. So, maybe I'm tapped into other comedy pipes that make this play's themes snoozy for me alone. Everyone around us was 30s and up--mainly 50s/60s. (WHICH leads me to a whole other question: when will my demographic being represented in mainstream theatre? Is it always going to be a waiting game? Actually I am okay with this? Like maybe there SHOULD be an art form where middle-age is the median for writers to offset Twitter?)

More re: lazy.

There could have been such better choices. So much was so petty, which, on one hand is part of the life of rich Californians, but, come on, make me care. A huge hinge of the play is an itty bitty lie. While representative of true life's complications (maybe), it was just so inconsequential. The climax was an outburst of huge the most (up until that point) correct person on stage. I don't buy it. It was too simple. Make a better choice.

There's a lot more I could say. But I will leave with this. In the talkback a woman noted that the play didn't take a bold stance. (See: much talking, not much getting anywhere). On the surface, perhaps. However, the arithmetic of the piece was completely lopsided. A room full of people on one side, one man on the other. That's fine. That's most drama. Except the one man was so terribly small-minded and ugly. So, like, the only person on team monogamy was utterly gross. In writing this I suppose you could argue the literature shows the lilliest-white attitudes can still be hateful--and which is worse? But in playing that game, you still accidentally call anyone who doesn't want to swing stupid. Funny because Norris says he wrote this play in response to being uncomfortable with "the lifestyle." Perhaps in an attempt to provide a fair fight, he fell much too hard on one side. NOT that I think falling too hard on the swinger side is wrong, it's just done, I think, accidentally, and rather clunkily.

Well this was boring, wasn't it? But it's nice and terrifying to know the greatest Pulitzer winners add lame mugging-gags and half-baked beginnings of dramatic choices to their new work with dynamite resources. Writing is hard, you know.

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