Hot Stuff: Omnium Gatherum Serves Up Debate and Dessert Off-Broadway

News   Hot Stuff: Omnium Gatherum Serves Up Debate and Dessert Off-Broadway
 
Omnium Gatherum, the fevered absurdist drama by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros where pundits and plutocrats dine while the world burns, officially opens at the Variety Arts Theatre on Sept. 25, after previews beginning Sept. 9.
Kristine Nielsen in Omnium Gatherum.
Kristine Nielsen in Omnium Gatherum. Photo by Joan Marcus

The play was born shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001. In the days following Sept. 11, Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros, longtime friends, watched countless hours of CNN and talked about the events and the way they were being interpreted by television's army of talking heads. Soon the heated discussions and debates between the playwrights flowed into a drama, in which the Western World's intellectual elite gather at a hellish dinner party to hash out the world's problems over several cases of red and white.

After several readings and workshops, Omnium Gatherum caught critics and producers' attention at the 2003 Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville this past March. The New York cast includes many of the Louisville production's stars. Kristine Nielsen plays Suzie, the dizzy, Martha Stewart-like hostess, who asks her guests to change their focus from anti-Semitism to her Belgian endive salad. Dean Nolen is the boozing, well-spoken, but flip British journalist, based on Christopher Hitchens. Phillip Clark, the table's belligerent hawk and neocon, is a thinly masked version of macho thriller author Tom Clancy. Taking his lead from Palestinian scholar Edward Said, meanwhile, is Edward J. Hajj, the lone Arab at the feast.

Rounding out the guest list are Jenny Bacon's feminist, vegan, lactose intolerant, walnut eschewing, pregnant PETA member; Melanna Gray's African-American, tone-deaf author; Joseph Lyle Talbot's quiet, well-mannered fireman; and, finally, Amir Arison, as Suzie's idea of a fun surprise guest.

The octet sails through food and drink-fueled conversations about such contentious topics as the Israel-Palestine conflict; America's globalistic and capitalistic policies and their repercussions; the decadence of well-appointed bathrooms; the alleged cruelty of carnivorous diets; the world's uneven distribution of wealth; Islamic fundamentalism; nuclear war; terrorism; the feasibility of world peace; and the culpability of the New York Times. Occasionally, the group takes break to chat about "Star Trek," gossip about infidelities, eat Saltines and compliment the chef.

Will Frears, the director at Louisville (and son of film director Stephen Frears), repeats his work in New York. David Rockwell, designer of many trendy Manhattan bistros, designs a quirky set which wouldn't look out of place in one of his restaurants. The producers of the New York mounting are Robert Cole, Joyce Johnson and Max Cooper, in association with Charles Flateman/Kerrin Behrend and Jujamcyn Theaters. The overall plan for the play, a spokesman for Rebeck previously told Playbill On-Line, is to open it at several theatres across the nation at roughly the same time, while allowing the New York staging to be the first out of the gate. Productions in Seattle and St. Louis have already been announced for 2003-04.

Rebeck is the author of such plays as The Butterfly Collection, The Family of Mann and Spike Heels. Her solo play, Bad Dates, about a restaurant manager who juggles motherhood, work and a collection of bad dates with jerks, premiered at Playwrights Horizons in June and was extended.

Gersten-Vassilros' work has frequently been seen at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. One play, My Thing of Love, reached Broadway in 1995, where it lasted a mere 12 performances, despite a cast headed by Laurie Metcalf.

Tickets are $66.25. For information, call (212) 239-6200.

A scene from <i>Omnium Gatherum</i>.
A scene from Omnium Gatherum.
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