“Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” the notorious 1969 film about married couples experimenting with open relationships and casual sex with friends, gets an angst-ridden, contemporary makeover in Pulitzer-winning playwright Bruce Norris’ (“Clybourne Park”) underwhelming comedy “The Qualms,” which is receiving its New York premiere Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons.
Set at a beachside apartment in suburban California, the philosophizing oddball Gary (John Procaccino) and his spacey, shapely wife Teri (Kate Arrington) praise the advantages of what they call “the lifestyle” over monogamy to the clean-cut, visibly nervous Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and his gorgeous wife Kristy (Sarah Goldberg), who are new to the swingers’ scene.
After more couples arrive and Chris is approached and cornered by several sexually aggressive women, he freaks out and lashes out against the “polyamorous community” in a lengthy monologue full of insults and moralizing. This leaves Kristy embarrassed and humiliates an overweight, feisty woman (Donna Lynne Champlin) who Chris considers unattractive.
Chris’ rant is followed by an outburst from Teri against men in general, the sudden entrance of a foreign delivery guy (who takes a long, confused look at what’s going on) and finally a period of calm, reconciliation and cleaning up.
“The Qualms” is essentially a static scenario about group sex with little plot or character development. It leads to nothing but an extended discussion on human nature and American culture.
The subject is more hackneyed than shocking, and Norris does not provide any original or interesting insight into it despite all the argumentation. Its humor depends mainly on sexual orientation jokes and depicting Chris as so obviously out of place.
Shamos, a fine actor who excels in portraying nervous energy, anchors Pam MacKinnon’s detailed production with a vivid performance that stresses Chris’ relatable qualities, even as his character becomes increasingly combative and unsympathetic.
Just in case you were wondering, “The Qualms” contains no nudity, but there is a large bowl of condoms on the coffee table.
If you go: “The Qualms” runs at Playwrights Horizons through July 12. 416 W. 42nd St., playwrightshorizons.org.