A dinner party from hell — literally! — disintegrates merrily onstage at “Omnium Gatherum,” a new play that serves up a smorgasbord of emotional and intellectual responses to 9/11 in between courses of mouth-watering food. (Do not arrive hungry — descriptions of the evening’s delicacies figure prominently in the dialogue. The amuse-bouche is a “golden and candy cane beet tartare with icicle radish tops, lemon verbena and cold pressed tangerine oil.”)
Look at your plate closely, and you may notice some of the dishes aren’t as fresh or cultivated as they appear — the play’s carefully sprung conflicts are detonated by ideas ripped from yesterday’s op-ed pages, and the guess-who assortment of characters are little more than animated tureens dispensing attitudes and opinions. But the playwrights, Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, and director Will Frears know, as do all good chefs, that a pretty piquant meal can be assembled from humble ingredients. They and their sharp cast deliver a bubbly 90 minutes of entertainment as the play skillfully spices its middlebrow TV-chat-show essence with infusions of boldly orchestrated comedy.
Presiding over this uneasy dinner, which is interrupted occasionally by the ominous thwumping of helicopters swooping by, is jolly hostess Suzie (Kristine Nielsen). She’s an ex-caterer turned global nesting guru (no prizes for guessing the model here), and something of a culinary terrorist, holding the salad dressing hostage and eyeing the salt shaker as if it were a hand grenade about to go off.
In her smashingly appointed dining room, designed with slick and slightly menacing allure by David Rockwell, Suzie has assembled a demographically diverse collection of somebodies to savor her elaborate repast (the meal has actually been designed by Alfred Portale, of the Gotham Bar & Grill, who gets an onstage plug for his efforts).
Placed at opposite ends of the table are the evening’s most enthusiastic combatants. Terence (Dean Nolen) is a slightly seedy British journalist who lubricates his cheery cynicism (“Human history is a bloodbath. Killing each other is what we do!”) with regular infusions of red wine. (Vanity Fair’s swaggering neo-con Christopher Hitchens is the apparent inspiration.) Terence’s primary bugaboo is the Palestinian question, over which he almost comes to blows with his sometime ally, sometime antagonist at the other end of the table, pop novelist and proud American Roger (Philip Clark).
A specialist in flag-waving thrillers (read Tom Clancy), Roger claims to have foreseen the calamity of 9/11, and spends much of the evening sneering at what he sees as the wishy-washy justifications and hand-wringing analyses of the more sensitive — which is to say, female — participants in this impromptu symposium. His suggested response to the rising tide of Muslim terrorism: “We have got to get a little crazy on everybody.”
That attitude sparks predictably disgusted responses from Julia (Melanna Gray), the lone African-American and practicing Christian at the table, and mousy Lydia (Jenny Bacon), a highly strung pacifist — and vegan — who accuses Roger of tossing around “words like ‘evil’ to trick people into subscribing to your political agenda.” Representing the world of diplomacy and decorum is the dandified Arab intellectual Khalid (Edward A. Hajj), a stand-in for Edward Said.
The evening’s most taciturn guest largely ignores the growing fracas to concentrate on his plate. He’s a New York firefighter (Joseph Lyle Taylor) who provides a sentimental touch but turns out to be one of the menu’s more exotic delicacies.
Given this dutifully diverse array of personalities — the play’s fancy title is Latin for a miscellaneous assortment, I gatherum — the temperature of the debate rarely dips below a low boil. It may be true that the opinions being swapped — about American imperialism, the pernicious effects of globalization, the root causes of the fundamentalism sweeping the Arab world — sometimes feel like microwaved leftovers from year-old magazine articles. And attempts to reveal the characters’ emotional underpinnings are strained and unsatisfactory.
But if the authors’ analyses of the current world order rarely move beyond the range of the usual soundbites, their ear for social satire is more acute, and director Frears (son of filmmaker Stephen) shrewdly emphasizes the petty personal conflicts that threaten to spoil all Suzie’s hard work. Among the evening’s more effective running gags is saucer-eyed Lydia’s increasing hunger; by evening’s end this mild-mannered vegan is ready to murder for some edible food. Also hilarious are Suzie’s violently cheery attempts to divert attention from intellectual antagonisms to culinary obscurities: “Such a lovely debate. Wonderful, really, bravo to everyone. Now, for the salad. I, for one, have never been a fan of frisee.”
Nielsen, in fact, gives a performance of such robust flavor that at times she threatens to overwhelm the proceedings. Her acting is like garlic; either you can’t get enough of it or a little goes a long way. (I, for one, have uneasy visions of her mugging in her sleep.) But her exuberantly loopy antics are always diverting, and they set off the more subdued comic playing of her co-stars, who are almost all excellent at infusing some individuality into their schematically conceived characters.
When dessert finally arrives, it is accompanied by a rare imported delicacy Suzie has thoughtfully provided: a Muslim terrorist! Enter Mohammed (Amir Arison), who spouts the expected imprecations — “You want to take our land, and steal our oil, to corrupt our women, demean our culture and degrade our god” — and engages Khalid in a hot debate over the exigencies of Islamic belief. After a violent outbreak, he is soon trussed up, thanks to Suzie’s quick thinking and handy supply of table linens (“I have just the thing! Take the napkin, fold it on the diagonal, a twist and a twirl and there you are!”).
The play then glides by a somewhat simplistic suggestion that comfort food is the answer to the world’s conflicts before bringing down the curtain on a frenzy of surreal stagecraft tinged with portentousness. The implicit message: While the world’s upper crust remains cloistered in its comfortable salons, debating the causes and consequences of the current unrest over sumptuous meals, the chaos outside rages unabated and with increasing violence. But this thunderous finale doesn’t have much emotional impact, because “Omnium Gatherum” is notably more successful as a comedy of bad manners than a rumination on the terrible events of two years past, whose consequences continue to ripple around the globe. A briskly paced and broadly played conversation-starter, it offers less food for thought than one might have expected.