Stick a Fork in It

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the dining room

Feb 11, 2004 at 4:00 am
No sooner has Life (x) 3, that enigmatic comedy-drama about a disastrous dinner party in Paris, ended its three-week run at the Studio Rep than another intermissionless offering has stepped up to the plate, employing a similar environ. If you thought Life (x) 3 was about the dinner party from Hell, wait till you sit through Omnium Gatherum, the third in the HotHouse Theatre Company's current season of four new plays.

Omnium Gatherum, which aspires to surrealism, satire and absurdity -- but which is only completely successful when it resorts to melodrama -- concerns a post-9/11 dinner party attended by an aggregation of eight celebrities and archetypes. Roger (John Contini) is a blunt, egoistic right-wing novelist presumably based on Tom Clancy. Terrance (Peter Mayer) is a wine-besotted British journalist said to be modeled after Christopher Hitchens. Khalid (Jeremy Sher) is a compassionate Arab scholar, Julia (Shawn Guy-Pitts) is an African-American minister, Lydia (Donna M. Parroné) is a lactose-intolerant vegan feminist. And so on.

How do you like your topical drama? In your face or in your mouth? Here you get it both ways. Between delectable courses of appetizer, salad and entrée, the dinner guests debate all kinds of "isms" -- capitalism, globalism, Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism. These discourses are spiced with references to such talismans of popular culture as CNN, Star Trek and the New York Times.

The soirée is presided over by Suzie, an all-style-and-no-substance Martha Stewart clone played to shallow perfection by Kari Ely. The actress serves up a deliriously ditzy performance. Watch her, for instance, late in the evening when, as a kind of perverse dessert, she adds a Muslim terrorist (Ambarish Manepalli) to the menu. This zealot is a clear and present danger, but he's also hungry. So the group votes to untie him. As he lifts his cutlery, everyone is intently focused on whether he's going to attack. Everyone that is, except Suzie. Her tense, fearful eyes reveal that she's only concerned with whether her newest guest likes his entrée.

Although the play was written as a response to September 11, much of this material actually seems derivative and even dated. The entire terrorist plotline appears to have been inspired by the infamous 1970 party at which another naive if well-intentioned host, Leonard Bernstein, introduced the elite of New York to Huey Newton and the Black Panthers. That was the party that inspired Tom Wolfe to coin the phrase "radical chic," but there's no such pithy phrasemaking here. Didactic dialogue like "We haven't got a lot of time to evolve here" is intended to be urgent, but instead it merely sounds reminiscent of old Burt Bacharach-Hal David song lyrics. (What does the world need now?) And that shockeroo of an ending is straight out of Robert Sherwood's 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Idiot's Delight. Watch for Clark Gable in the 65-year-old film version on Turner Classic Movies.

Yet one thing about this production works as tightly as a well-wound clock, and that is Jason Cannon's thoughtful, ruminative portrayal of a New York City fireman. Throughout the evening it's as if Cannon is acting in a different script from everyone else. While other actors are playing the lines, Cannon is playing the character. Building on his recent, effectively hushed Vershinin in Chekhov's The Three Sisters, Cannon continues to seek truth through stillness. Here his focused search pays off in an ever intriguing, at times poignant, performance.

Since its triumphant premiere last year at Louisville's Humana Festival, from where it promptly moved to a limited run off-Broadway, Omnium Gatherum has generated polarized, often heated, reactions. Its champions, among them HotHouse artistic director Marty Stanberry, who directed this handsome production, are passionate about its ambitions; others find the play to be exploitative and pretentious. As for me, I tend to agree with Webster's New World College Dictionary, fourth edition, which, in defining "omnium-gatherum" as "a miscellaneous collection of persons," also informs us that the phrase is "pseudo Latin." That seems to be the real problem here: Omnium Gatherum is larded with too much pseudo, too much sham. What was intended as gourmet theater turns out to be so much hash, and rehash.