American playwrights are just beginning to grapple with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and their efforts began to show up for the first time in this new theater season. The subject hasn't been tackled as yet on Broadway, which depends on more popular entertainment themes or sure-fire revivals.
"Omnium Gatherum" was the outstanding entry in the Humana Festival for New American plays in Louisville, Ky., earlier this year, and is getting an $800,000 production at the Variety Arts Theater. As its title implies, the play is about a mixed bag gathering, mostly of intellectuals, at the dinner table of a famous life-style autocrat named Suzie, a caricature of Martha Stewart.
The terrorist bombing of the twin towers is a recent occurrence and the trophy party guests assembled by the socially ambitious Suzie still duck whenever a helicopter swoops over her Manhattan penthouse apartment.
The play by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros follows closely on the opening Off Broadway of "Recent Tragic Events," which reduces 9/11 to maudlin soap opera dimensions, and "Portraits," a more serious take on the event that deals with altered lives. "Omnium Gatherum" is more of an audience-pleaser, laced with contentious confrontations, dark humor, and flimsily disguised parodies of well-known personalities.
In addition to Stewart, the playwrights have created characters satirizing novelist Tom Clancy, journalist-commentator Christopher Hitchens, Mideast affairs expert Edward W. Said, who died last month, a feminist and vegan who would appear to be an amalgam of several real life prototypes, and a black woman writer less susceptible to identification. There are two other dinner guests -- one dead and one very much alive and dangerous.
Insults and epithets fly around Suzie's exquisitely set table while she serves up each dinner course with a full description of its contents -- golden candy cane beef tartare, wild Columbia River salmon with fingerling potatoes and roasted fennel, Moroccan spiced lamb with couscous (she insists on pronouncing its coush-coush), Anjou pear and endive salad, and strawberry mille-feuilles with mascarpone custard.
The guests occasionally comment rapturously on the food, but seem more interested in drinking and mauling each other with words. It's the sort of free-for-all in a civilized setting that lets audience members wallow in a sense of superiority as to how they would act under the same circumstances. It also confirms their suspicions that celebrities are ill-mannered egomaniacs.
Nevertheless there are plenty of laughs to be had out of the prejudices and ignorance revealed in the shouted crossfire on such topics as Palestinians vs. Israelis, capitalism and the exploitation of Third World poverty, the United States as a world class bully, veganism vs. meaty diets, the frustrations of African-Americans, the inanity of New York Times book reviews, and Hitler vs. Mahatma Gandhi.
The ideas and opinions proferred on these subjects seem shallow and are seldom debated at length, reducing the evening to a rosary of sound bites that reminds the hearer of a talking heads show on television. Only Khalid, the Mideast expert played with a modicum of dignity by Edward A. Hajj, comes across as a cool head in an overheated exchange, even though some of his views are couched in laughably opaque language.
"So we are then, all of us seeking, let's say, a false oneness to pull us through the demanding duality of life," Khalid observes in his role as "The Voice of Reason."
Another quiet voice is that of Jeff, a guest sympathetically played by Joseph Lyle Taylor who is revealed late in the play and jolts the dinner party momentarily until the arrival of a threatening terrorist named Mohammed played by Amir Arison, whom Suzie serves up along with the petits fours as her piece de resistance.
Mohammed touches off another shouting match that unites the other guests in such a false sense of moral righteousness that they begin to dance together to the strains of "I've Got the World on a String," a signal for an apocalypse to strike, dragging the dining table to a fiery underworld in a shower of debris that looks for all the world like Mardi Gras confetti.
Will Frears has directed this fearsome lampoon with an eye to making it as inflammatory as possible.
He is ably assisted by a strong cast that revels in over-the-top acting -- Kristine Nielsen as the maddeningly silly Suzie; Phillip Clark as Roger, her loudmouth novelist boyfriend; Jenny Bacon as Lydia, the sexy vegan with a pregnant secret; Melanna Gray as Julia, the black writer with attitude; and Dean Nolen as Terrence, the overbearing Cambridge-educated journalist.
Designer David Rockwell has contrived a simple but glamorous setting for Suzie's party illuminated by a threatening-looking chandelier made up of glass icicles that adds to the eerie lighting design devised by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
Junghyun Georgia Lee's costumes capture the casual look preferred by contemporary intellectuals perfectly, and restaurateurs Peter and Penny Glazier's dinner menu reflects the current penchant for pretentiously prepared foods culled from around the globe.