Fest’s timely find

'Omnium' stands out in middling Humana slate

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In serious times, it can be argued that audiences aren’t just looking for escapism.

There are also plenty of folks hungry — ravenous, even — to engage with issues of terrorism, war and America’s role in the world. They just need the right kind of play.

“Omnium-Gatherum,” the dazzling standout of this year’s otherwise half-baked Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky., may just be that play.

It has been three years since Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends,” the last true Humana hit, emerged from Louisville to commercial success and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. “Omnium-Gatherum” might reasonably be termed “Dinner With Enemies.”

With producers and regional reps already nipping at the heels of co-authors Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and Theresa Rebeck during the six-play Humana’s annual visitors weekend, April 4-6, this piece likely will provoke something of a bidding war. And given the play’s timeliness, no one will want to wait.

An Off Broadway outing is the most likely. But this piece deftly combines geopolitical commentary with the skewering of celebrities and broad social comedy; ergo, it has B.O. appeal.

Stick some stars in this thing — and they’ll be chomping at the bit, after they read the script — and Broadway isn’t out of the question.

“Omnium” follows a Gotham dinner party, given by an ebullient character closely resembling Martha Stewart, shortly after the events of Sept. 11. The cognoscenti will think they recognize the guests — the charming drunk looks and talks like Christopher Hitchens; the conservative novelist might be Tom Clancy; the Middle Eastern scholar seems based on Edward Said. But some of the other people at the table — a vegan lesbian-feminist, an African-American cultural icon — are harder to pin down. The hostess also has invited an anonymous-looking fireman, a fellow perplexed by liberal pretensions and amuses-bouches.

Just before dessert, the faux-Stewart announces her Big Surprise: A terrorist from the World Trade Center is coming to dinner.

He shows up and argues. As one watches this, of course, it occurs to one that the fellow actually would be dead. That also slowly occurs to the dinner guests. And what about that fireman? Is he alive? From there, things take a decidedly otherworldly turn.

One could quibble: The finale spends too long with intra-Arab issues, when western attitudes should be wriggling on the hook. And the writing needs more ideological clarity in places — its final pronouncements are much too woolly. But these are minor challenges.

Solidly acted for the most part, the Louisville debut is a stellar production, staged with great zip and alacrity.

Unfortunately, none of the other five plays was ready for primetime.

The worst of the bunch, Russell Davis’ “The Second Death of Priscilla,” is a dull and impenetrable affair about, no kidding, a woman trying to slay a wolf lurking outside her window. This involves one scenery-chewing actor lifting a bit of his costume and revealing fur. Mark Masterson’s tedious, self-conscious production emptied half the house at intermission and sent whole rows to sleep.

The four other plays at least had some potential — although one has to worry about the quality of the once-stellar dramaturgical work these days at Humana, since play after play seemed to start with an interesting premise or idea, only to fall apart later. And they were almost all much too long.

Still, Kia Corthron’s “Slide Glide the Slippery Slope” is a provocative piece, full of compelling notions. Corthron’s strength — and her Achilles’ heel — is that she tends to begin her plays with a desire to write about a controversial topic (in this case, it’s human cloning). That makes her work uncommonly smart and stimulating. But it also means the ideas often don’t quite mesh with the characters and dramatic action. They don’t here.

Bridget Carpenter’s “The Faculty Room” is a sharp and realistic piece about teachers trying to survive in an unfashionable, out-of-the-way high school. It starts out wonderfully — there’s lots of dead-on satire about the agonies of teaching amidst scarce resources and weird teens. And the cynical teachers in the play are funny character studies. But after intermission, the play completely collapses as its plot starts to deal with students who become obsessed with the Rapture.

There aren’t too many plays about eunuchs, but “The Lively Lad” by Quincy Long is one of them. This faux-18th-century comedy is an intermittently amusing affair that creates a period environment of ingenues, misanthropes and rural hayseeds to score some satirical points about the rise of conservatism in today’s world (for repressed minority, read eunuch). It’s got potential, some decent yucks and, for sure, it’s highly original. But this show with music needs a proper score — a few chords do not do anything. And it needs to lose about 25% of its running time.

That leaves Rinne Groff’s “Orange Lemon Egg Canary,” a piece that tries to combine magic tricks with a sexy plot about a magician and his women — both real and from the past. It’s slick in places. But the Louisville production was weak, the ideas hackneyed and, at this particular moment in time, it feels too shallow.

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