They're the guests at the end-of-the-world dinner party at the center of Omnium Gatherum, Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros' pitch-black, socio-political fantasia which opened at the Variety Arts on Sept. 25. The politically incorrect hostess of the evening is the oblivious solipsist and Martha Stewart manque, Suzie, played by actress Kristine Nielsen. The view outside might be apocalyptic, but that won't stop Suzie from giving each course of the sumptuous dinner a full presentation, albeit with garbled pronunciation. Nielsen, a prime interpreter of playwright Christopher Durang's satiric world (Betty's Summer Vacation, Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge), is an old hand at projecting barely contained comic chaos, and Suzie may be her most antic creation to date. Nielsen talked to Playbill On-Line about how she keeps Omnium's many food-laden plates spinning night after night.
Playbill On-Line: I'm interested in all that food you serve and eat on stage in Omnium Gatherum. Is it still prepared by the chef from Gotham Bar and Grill, or has the chef changed?
Kristine Nielsen: Now it's Bobby Flay. It's the same basic food. We always have to have salmon and we always have to have lamb.
PBOL: So you don't have to memorize a new menu.
KN: I do, actually, because how it's prepared does shift rather dramatically. With Bobby Flay, there are a lot of southwestern influences, lots of chiles and different spices. So I did have a rocky Tuesday last week reciting the menu. [Laughs] I think I invented foods, so that the cast members were just looking at me with "Oh, my God! What did she just say?"
PBOL: When I saw it, it did seem as though you were improvising the pronunciation of the dishes. I thought that was part of the character.
KN: That is. Alex Gersten, one of the writers, told me about a woman she had met who used to speak French terribly, but with great conviction. It was always mispronounced, but so funny to [Alex]. So, that's what she used for Susie.
PBOL: What is happening behind and under the stage? The food suddenly appears through trap doors and on elevators.
KN: They prepare it at The Strip House restaurant [nearby], but they follow the orders of the various chefs. And at one point the chef of The Strip House will also be doing his version of the meal. There's this terrific prop master, Aaron. He looks like a grand master chef; he's got an apron. He's an artist in his other life. He's preparing everything all the time. They pick it up from The Strip House and then he has to create the courses on the plates and warm them. They've been very ingenious. The lamb comes up on a platter that's actually heated. Nobody's eating anything that congealed or scary or bad. PBOL: You're serving the other actors throughout the show. You really have to depend on those props being there when you need them.
KN: Oh, yes. I can tell you we had some adjustments with the table. The table was slanted at one time—they were trying to show off the food and the beautiful dishware that came from Vera Wang and Calvin Klein. They tilted the table so much that the food would slide away! It was like Gaslight. "Now, I know I served somebody and I don't know who now." So, we had that bump in tech rehearsal, because we thought, oh, we can't slant the table that much. So, now I try to present each dish as much as possible.
PBOL: So Vera Wang can get her exposure.
KN: [Laughs] Yes, I think she needs more!
PBOL: This is probably the most prop-intensive play you've ever done.
KN: It is. It truly is, because, as you may have noticed, you don't want to ruin timing on anything with placing plates in an incorrect way, or moving something when someone's trying to work toward a laugh. But now it works a little bit like clockwork, a little bit like a dance.
PBOL: And there's an awful lot of stage wine. What are you drinking on stage?
KN: I'm drinking diluted apple juice, which is the white wine. The red wine is unsweetened Kool-Aid with Equal. It's dreadful. That's because of Dean Nolen, who plays Terrence. We tried cranberry juice and other things. But Dean drinks so much of the red wine that it was tearing up his stomach. And during our previews, he developed an episode of kidney stones, for which the worst thing you can have is cranberry juice. It was trial and error. We even tried non-alcoholic red wine, but that's such a rich flavor. It's too much!
PBOL: Is it an exhausting play to do night after night?
KN: You know, it's so quick. I'd say, one minute before you do it, you think, "Oh, I can do this again." Then it's such a roller-coaster ride, and it is so even-handed as to who's got focus in a certain moment. There's lots of little respites in it. I find it very gratifying to do by the end of the evening. Most audience members I've talked to find the play does so many flips that whenever they think its going to go one way, if shifts and goes another, so it doesn't become preachy.
PBOL: The text is obviously very potent and political. Have you had some adverse reactions from anyone in the audience who didn't like what was being said on stage?
KN: Yes. There was a lady who left. She made it through the Israeli Palestinian argument—sometimes there's some real hissing through that. But the joke about the rabbi, the monk and the priest at the end—after that she screamed "Shame on you!" and walked out. There's been crazy applause at some points. But, as I said, it's pretty balanced. We've been lucky. You can shift your allegiance from moment to moment.