Playwright: Bruce Norris. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org; $20-$86. Runs through: Aug. 31
At a well-planned sex partyor just about any kind of party, for that matterthere is an understanding that you don't have to engage in sex, but are free to enjoy the occasion in whatever manner you wish. At poorly-planned sex parties, by contrast, group pressure frequently makes for divisive confrontations between those seeking mindless sensory indulgence and those bent on analytic discussion as a preface to the evening's activities. Bruce Norris' sex party, however, features an insecure husband who ignores the options exercised by gracious guests in such circumstances to instead proclaim at length his stubbornly dogmatic disapproval of the entire event.
Norris has confessed only to watching a documentary on polyamorous communities by way of research, so perhaps he can be forgiven his own uneasiness with the marital practices reflecting the characters' individual experiences and philosophy. Besides, a playwright's gotta keep his personnel swapping chat somehoweven if it means invoking the threadbare writing-workshop device of introducing the ultimate party-pooper and giving him free rein to make offensive remarks in defiance of the most fundamental rules of hospitality.
The result of this artificial symposium is relentless R-rated repartee serving no lasting purpose beyond providing infantile playgoers a giggle when somebody says "vagina." This doesn't mean there aren't some intriguing backstories hidden beneath the potty-mouth veneer: we want to hear more from the widowed Deb, whose late husband endowed her with a circle of intimate friends ( in every sense of the word ) to comfort her in her bereavement. How did war-veteran Roger come to find people tolerant of his carpe-diem lifestyle? What delivered sweet-tempered Teri from an abusive adolescence to the stable environment of supportive peers?
Too often, however, Norris' narrative breaks down to a series of debates triggered by a self-righteous agitator childishly rejecting the courtesy shown him by his hosts ( who inexplicably volunteer information that real-life acquaintances would have shared years earlier ) in order to propel the plot to the requisite 90 minutes mandated by modern theater marketing. To be sure, conflictwhether based in politics, religion or choice of bed-buddiesis a quick-and-easy way to generate actorly fizz, but neither Pamela McKinnon's capable ensemble of Chicago's favorite players or Todd Rosenthal's slickly replicated playpen can compensate for the clumsiness of its content.
Norris, in his playbill note, claims his play's goal was to "make it impossible to go home afterward and have sex," but what we are more likely to do after the show is to look for a more mature revel.