Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Omnium Gatherum Performed to Perfection by Theater Project Ensemble
Also see Bob's review of Minstrel Show
The sheer perfection of the Theatre Project production of Omnium Gatherum is breathtaking. Director Mark Spina, the founding Artistic Director of this upstart company ensconced on the campus of Union County College, has directed this messy and nearly plotless 9/11 inspired 90-minute one act play with a sure-handed smoothness and clarity which is stunning to behold. It is not possible to watch this version of Omnium Gatherum without being held in thrall to the performances and production.
However, to this reviewer, the play written by the much praised and produced Theresa Rebeck in tandem with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, is reprehensive in its view that there is a moral equivalency between terrorists and their victims. Additionally, Omnium Gatherum places the viewer at an unpleasant gathering of mostly pompous elitists. While stopping short of justifying the mass murder of American innocents by radical Islamic terrorists, these authors clearly place the blame for their behavior on America's monopolization of the world's wealth. The simplistic and unimplementable solution to the world's problems suggested by Omnium Gatherum is that America eliminate terrorism by giving up its wealth and seeing to it that the terrorists are prosperous and well fed.
The setting is an elegant dinner party from hell. The time is the Fall of 2001 and the place is New York City. You will find out more about the location of the play. How early or late you do so will depend upon your perspicacity. While the setting device is borrowed from successful earlier plays, it is appropriately employed here.
The hostess and her six guests whom we see as the play begins are prototypes of various New Yorkers. The hostess Suzie (think Martha Stewart), who has become extremely wealthy by selling cookware, et al, is serving a très elegante meal complete with a tiny "amuze bouche" (her French is very poor) containing more exotic ingredients than normal folk are likely to eat in a month. It is clear from her guest list that she is more interested in honing her reputation than she is in the compatibility of her guests. A seventh, late arriving guest will firmly establish her in the class of the radical chic elite who were so adroitly skewered by Tom Wolfe more than 35 years ago. Suzie expresses her political ideas in clichés (it is difficult to tell if Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros want us to see them as such). Still, Suzie is surely being satirized when she makes the case for her sensitivity by saying, "I was middle class once. I know what it feels like." Harriet Trangucci in the role of Suzie is as smoothly alluring as the real article. Her Suzie is all bright surface and she is deliriously disinterested in exploring any deep thoughts, whether or not any capacity for them exists within her. Trangucci draws us into Suzie's surface glow despite our better judgment.
Your reaction to four of her guests will probably vary with your geo-political outlook, although the authors have fun at the expense of each of them. Their greatest disdain is for the soused and pompous ("I drink to make other people interesting"), anti-Semitic Cambridge-educated English commentator Terence. His adversary is Roger, a brand name, best selling author of international espionage thrillers whose last novel was about jihad. Roger is an unremitting advocate of the use of unshackled military force against the forces of "evil." Still, he scores points when he asks, "If the United States gives up world power, who will step up?". Rick Delaney (Terence) and Gary Glor (Roger) bring full flavor and conviction to each of these roles which are purportedly modeled on Christopher Hitchens and John Clancy. It is in their interplay with each other and the other dinner guests that Delaney and Glor convince us that this party is a true reflection of these chic parties. Add the African-American Julia, a sweet but glib and shallow, church going pacifist author and the Asian-American Lydia, a vaguely radical Asian-American, who feels that America is misogynistic and is led into imperialist behavior by a false belief in white intellectual superiority. Shirine Babb (Julia) and Rebecca Moore (Lydia) add to the production's sense of verisimilitude in these roles as does Chess Lankford in the small role of 9/11 responder hero fireman Jeff.
There is one unalloyed good guy in shining armor present. Purportedly modeled after the late Muslim Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Edward Said is the erudite and gentlemanly Khalid. Khalid will have no truck with terrorist bombers ("You killed randomly. You are not fit to represent Islam"). He is not only a fine man whom we would all want to be our friend, but an Islamist who speaks out forthrightly against terrorism. Yet, heroic Khalid makes it clear that he regards the concentration of wealth and "unbridled capitalism" in America as the source of all the world's ills. Kevin Sebastian fully makes Khalid as engagingly believable as Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros would have him be.
This review would not be complete without mention of the late arriving guest, the terrorist Mohammed (Faisal S. Sheikh). From his presence, we learn that when a terrorist is treated with kindness and given some gourmet food to eat, all he will then want is to be a good friend of ours. We also learn that our terrorist is a loving father (just the same as fireman hero Jeff).
Omnium Gatherum means a miscellaneous collection. Those killed on 9/11 at the World Trade Center were omnium gatherum. Those appearing on stage in this play are a deliberate cross section of atypical stereotypes designed to propagate a particular philosophic and political response to the tragic slaughter of innocents on that day.
The physical production is excellent. The set, costumes (Katherine Winter), lighting design (Jeffrey E. Saltzberg) and sound design (Andrea Monorchio) all contribute to creating an other worldly quality essential to the proceedings.
Director Mark Spina and his talented cast and crew are due full praise for this outstanding production of Omnium Gatherum. Despite discontentment with the play itself, I found the Theater Project production to be well worth seeing.
Omnium Gatherum continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m./Sun. 3 p.m.) through October 21, 2007 at The Theater Project at Union County College, 1033 Springfield Avenue, Cranford, NJ 07016. Box Office: 908-659-5189/ online: www.TheTheaterProject.com.
Omnium Gatherum by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros; directed by Mark Spina