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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
With the proliferation of cell phones and their tendency to annoyingly go off during a play, it's become de rigueur to remind audiences to turn this and other gadgets off -- preferably doing so entertainingly and with an original touch. At Omnium Gatherum, a collaborative effort by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros about a dinner party in the wake of the 9/11 suicide bombings, the audience members are flatteringly linked to the educated, characters they are about to meet. On the assumption that they've been smart enough to already silence their cell phones, they are asked to use the moment it would take to switch to the off button to have a good thought.
My own good thought: Any dinner party hosted by Kristine Nielsen is bound to be entertaining even if it doesn't serve as a healing or enlightening theatrical response to the events of September 11, 2001. Sure enough Ms. Nielsen does indeed lift the hostess determined to be the mostest to new heights of fluttery, funny foolishness. However, neither Ms. Nielsen's Suzie, a thinly disguised Martha Stewart, or her other guests (several also transparently similar to real people whose names are usually printed in bold face), allayed my queasiness about any play inspired by 9/11 being too soon, too exploitative and unequal to the challenge of giving meaningful theatrical life to the real event and its aftermath.
Of the trio of 9/11 plays that opened Off-Broadway during the last week or so, Omnium Gatherum, thanks to lots of advance buzz and a pat on the head from the chief theater critic of The New York Times, is likely to have the longest life. Portraits, a straightforward series of monologues, most invented by author Jonathan Bell, was intended as an open run but is already headed to an early grave (closing 10/05). Recent Tragic Events, scheduled as a limited run, claimed our attention by casting a movie star, Heather Graham, in the lead. As it turned out, playwright Craig Wright upstaged her with an entertaining gimmick in the guise of a sock puppet purporting to be author Joyce Carol Oates.
While Portraits came off as a less authentic variation of the Portraits in Grief published in the New York Times and Recent Tragic Events is basically a combination sitcom and soap opera, Omnium Gatherum is kin to theatrical genres mined by some of our most prestigious playwrights. It ranges over enough issues to fit the tag discussion play, associated with much of Bernard Shaw's oeuvre and more specifically dinner party theater pieces like Carol Churchill's Top Girls.
Veganism (a tip of the hat to Shaw who was a vegetarian?), globalization, capitalism, Middle East warfare, Star Trek and, naturally, terrorism -- there isn't a topic this "collection of peculiar souls" (one of the guest's definition for the highbrow Latin title) can't argue about. The scrappy table talk, especially between Terence, (Dean Nolen playing the British journalist Christopher Hitchens sound-alike) and Roger (Philip Clark as a self-satisfied, right-wing Tom Clancy style novelist) is encouraged by director Will Frears to be more a case of shouting than talking heads.
Though the hostess and some of the guests are real enough for easy recognition (Edward A. Haij's erudite Khalid brings to mind Edward W. Said, who coincidentally died just as he made his debut as a satirical character in this play), this dinner party is actually in the realm of the surreal. The menu and guest list may suggest an upper East Side Manhattan duplex, but David Rockwell's set has enough visual hints to make the apocalyptic ending less than a total surprise; the most obvious: Hades red drapes, lit by an icicle dripping chandelier, a table long enough and arranged to evoke Da Vinci's "Last Supper" plus a set-up of candles Suzi refers to as "nasty eternal flames. "
The play's surrealism leads to a final image that is stronger and more dramatic than anything leading up to it. That said, the playwrights' satirical intent is occasionally quite funny -- mostly courtesy of Nielsen's manic, non-listening self-congratulatory hostess as she dishes up and describes each course of the haute nouvelle menu with comic panache; also Jenny Bacon, as Lydia a vegetarian feminist who can't eat anything "with a face " and thus ends up so hungry that she wolfs down the curried corn . No complaints about the other performances either -- Dean Nolen and Philip Clark are well-matched as the increasingly bellicose Terence-cum-Hitchens and Roger-cum-Clancy; Edward A. Haij's is fine as the Arab intellectual and Melanna Gray and Joseph Lyle Taylor make the most of the smaller roles as an African-American woman who may or may not be a minister and a fireman who proves himself to be the most appreciative eater at the table. As for Mohammed, the party's surprise late arrival, Amir Arison has little to add to this character except a heavy accent.
In the end, neither the fancy food or the intellectual bantering add up to the definitive 9/11 play. Still there's that already mentioned stunning last image which is reminiscent of a golden oldie film adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize Winning Idiot's Delight. The scene is accompanied by "I've Got the World on a String" which just a few days ago aptly, and also ironically, introduced a small kitchen sink drama also driven by more talk than plot with a "Last Supper" seating arrangement (Four Beers ). Maybe it's time for that song to get a whole play of its own -- hopefully it will tie its string to a musical rather than another attempt to dramatize recent and ongoing tragic events.
Other reviews of plays inspired by the events of 9/11:
The Mercy Seat
Recent Tragic Events
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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