Hungry? I know just the place for you. A dinner party where the courses are pan-roasted Columbia River salmon, roasted Moroccan spiced lamb, Belgian endive and Anjou pear salad, and a non-stop volley of furious opinions offered up by a diverse group of guests who'll eat, drink, and laugh themselves into oblivion and beyond.
Welcome to the world of Omnium Gatherum, the appetizing new play (and hit of the 2003 Humana Festival) by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros at the Variety Arts Theatre. It's a place on the edge of reality and fantasy, a bridge between Earth and Hell, created - like our own, dangerous new world - with the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
But while this dinner party may or may not actually exist, its participants are all too real, eight people from very different walks of life, each with strong opinions about the right way and the wrong way to look at any issue. They've all been brought together by Suzie (Kristine Nielsen), a perky ever-smiling Martha Stewart-type domestic goddess intent on serving perfect food at a perfect table around which perfect debate about all sorts of topics is the order of the evening.
And with these people, she definitely gets that: There's Roger (Phillip Clark), a conservative Tom Clancy-style novelist; Lydia (Jenny Bacon), a staunch feminist and vegan; Julia, the group's only black woman, devoted to her vision of peace and equality; Khalid, the party's Arab guest, highly critical of America's policies in the Middle East; Terence (Dean Nolen), an English Christopher Hitchens-like pundit and analyst; and Jeff (Joseph Lyle Taylor), a soft-spoken firefighter.
Omnium Gatherum has little plot, per se; the entire play is derived from the interactions between these people, as they explore their differences and similarities about topics ranging from the food, Star Trek, capitalism, terrorism, morality, and more. Though the seven can't agree about much, they do have one trait in common: hunger. Each hungers to question the others' ideas and, afterwards, each hungers to come out on top of the debate.
But Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros make the point that the guests are all interested in what's best, even when they can't agree on what that is. This is aided by the balanced and sensitively drawn portraits of the characters, each with traits others would benefit from, and each with some ideas drawn from intellect and research and others drawn from pure emotion. Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros have successfully reduced the best and worst of humanity to this play's dinner party, creating an even-handed, representative world of opinions and dissent with provocative panache and humor. (Omnium Gatherum is the most legitimately funny non-musical I've seen in a long time, an impressive achievement for a very serious play.)
The performers provide fine assistance, all doing well with their roles, finding as much emotion and comedy as could be expected (though Nielsen occasionally seems a tad too vacant, even for the intentionally one-dimensional Suzie). Will Frears's direction is right in step with the writers' and actors' work, keeping the never-ending discussion quick, tight, and exciting. David Rockwell's set, dominated by Suzie's dinner table, is beautiful but abstract, the perfect site for this titanic meeting of minds. The lights, provided by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, also help establish the eerie atmosphere the play thrives on, and Junghyun Georgia Lee's costumes and Vincent Olivieri's spine-tingling sound design nicely complete the production.
If Omnium Gatherum falters dramatically, it's only briefly, when the authors threaten to change the rules of the game with Suzie's surprise (one alluded to all evening, but which won't be revealed here), and almost succeed. This descent into an almost-predictable obviousness is temporary, and ultimately helpful, rather than damaging, to the proceedings; the world Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros have created is that strong and capable of overcoming a more traditional dramatic device in a play of an otherwise very unique style.
Omnium Gatherum never particularly moves, but it does intrigue, question, and validate all sides of the debates that anchor our lives in a post-September 11 world. Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros are talented chefs, and their meal is both tasty and nutritious.