"Who were you on 9-11?"
In many ways, that seems to be the question underlying Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gerston-Vassilaros' intriguing and often brilliant "Omnium Gatherum". On the surface, this is a deadly dramatic concept, a dinner party at which the guests are seated almost throughout, and at which little happens beyond conversation. But under the brilliant direction of Jon Jory, this vivid and convincing cast creates a kind of frozen moment in time. It is that instant when we all changed forever, and on which we are only now beginning to achieve an understanding of who we were prior to the towers falling, and what that event has caused, and is causing, us to become. A stunningly effective set design (Robert Dahlstom) overcomes the essentially static nature of the play, and keeps the cast rotating on a turntable almost imperceptibly, allowing us not only to see the faces of everyone around the table, but to literally view everyone from a constantly changing point of view.
Suzie is the hostess for an evening of elegant dining and generally elevated conversation. As she says, "a dinner party is only as good as the guests", and this party has been constructed as carefully as any of the nouveau cuisine dishes served on silver trays. Suzie is clearly in the Martha Stewart mold (all of the characters have recognizable true-life counterparts), and she has varied the menu with a meat and potatoes novelist, a vegan with feminist ideals and an unappeased appetite, a British intellectual who drinks too much, an African-American female minister, a moderate Middle-Eastern scholar and a heroic, uncultured New York City fireman. A later guest, a fanatical terrorist, intended as an exotic spice, turns out to be entirely too strong a flavor. At the end of all the conversation, the play takes a fantastical, not entirely convincing turn, and ends with a stunning technical effect, but one that is perhaps rather stronger than the play has earned.
Marianne Owen is splendid as Suzy, constantly struggling to maintain the decorum of a "correct" event with the disorder and conflict of her guests and the world beyond her perfectly appointed table. Director Jory has a perfect sense of theatrical balance, and uses Suzy's impossible standard of propriety for some of the evening's best comic relief. And the play definitely needs that relief. Not only is it a play about the things people say about their lives and their world, but these people abide one another much more than they connect with one another. At times the conflict is intense and substantial, and at other times it is simply irritable and inconsequential. Of course, that is a major theme of the play. How do we find accommodation for our differences in a world where there is so little acceptance? As the scholar Khalid (a dignified and impressive Joseph Kamal) says, "This will be a compassionate universe or it will cease to be altogether".
The old-fashioned, traditional American values of the pop novelist, Roger (the excellent Eddie Levi-Lee) have no time or respect for the trivial and trendy philosophies and appetites of the hungry vegan, Lydia (drawn with surprising complexity by Mari Nelson). Likewise, the British intellectual (Kent Broadhurst) has opinions on the Middle East, particularly Israelis, that inflame Khalid and others, and can only be doused with another glass of vintage wine. The fireman (David Drummond) is a clichÈ, dull but noble, and Cynthia Jones as a dynamic minister finds herself stereotyped in sometimes funny, sometimes offensive ways. Her utterly digressive rendering of a Whitney Houston song is hilariously inept, and her description of an overly elaborate bathroom with Venetian amber floors as "a shrine to our shit" is a perfectly apt label for all of our cultural materialism. When the guest terrorist (an impassioned and embittered Dennis Mosley) joins the table the polite safety of the discourse becomes physical, just as the abstract idea of terrorism became physical with the impact of those planes.
That this essay on contemporary issues and politics should be so compelling as theatre is largely due to the strength of the acting talent, and the impressively subtle control of Jon Jory's direction. The play itself tries, in a final stretch for monumental significance, to transcend its own reality and become a great metaphor. That will work for some, and seem a bit desperate to others. Good arguments can be made in either direction. For me, it really worked. What I found happening in the crushing darkness was a recognition that I have personally held each of the positions held by these characters to one degree or another. I think we as a nation held all of these positions on September 10th, 2001. But as the end of this play, of all this talk, comes crashing down on the perfect white tablecloth, nothing has the same significance it had a moment before. What we measure now, what we began to measure on September 12th, is our new relationship to each of those positions, to our integrity, our values, our desperate need to choose which voice will speak for us in this dangerous, untidy world.
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