The cast of Omnium Gatherum(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The cast of Omnium Gatherum
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
During the anxious hours and days after September 11, 2001, millions of distraught world citizens ruminated obsessively over what they could do to alleviate widespread physical and psychological pains. For playwrights, the option was obvious and probably unstoppable: Write a play. The first to show up was Anne Nelson's The Guys, which The Flea Theater's Jim Simpson commissioned at a dinner party. Then there was a lull. John Guare's one-act Woman at a Threshold, Beckoning bowed at this year's EST spring marathon, but there hasn't been much else.

Now there's evidence that the gestation period for at least some 9/11 dramas was just about two years -- the time it takes for dramatists to compose a work and then find a home for it. No less than three plays on the disturbing subject will have opened by the time September bows out. The first of them, Jonathan Bell's Portraits, is a disappointing series of reality-based but apparently fictional monologues; the third, Craig Wright's Recent Tragic Events remains to be assessed.

The second is Omnium Gatherum, which Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros found themselves compelled to construct. It's the second demonstration so far during this busy seven-day period that when it comes to cogent dramatic reply, playwrights can't just have their hearts in the right place. Also required is the kind of imaginative thought that Nelson and Guare brought to bear in their pieces -- deeply personal, even offbeat, answers to global anguish.

Kristine Nielsen in Omnium Gatherum(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Kristine Nielsen in Omnium Gatherum
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Not called for in times like these is the merely clever angle, but that's what collaborators Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros offer in the 90-minute-or-so Omnium Gatherum. A self absorbed magnate named Suzie (Kristine Nielsen) has invited seven guests, one a late-introduced surprise, to a dinner overseen (she announces) by Alfred Portale, the very real chef at Manhattan's high-end beanery Gotham. (The press material handed to reviewers includes Suzie's menu, complete with mouth-watering descriptions of each course. It's a "don't try this at home" affair, since any amateur cook attempting to duplicate this outré repast would undoubtedly be humiliated.)

Suzie's mix-and-match notion, which most hostesses might not consider the smartest plan, is that her table companions be so widely varied in intellectual pursuits and political ideology that conversational sparks will fly thick and fast enough to flambé every one of the fancy dishes. At the right end of her long table (from the audience's vantage point), she has seated the insulting, reactionary novelist Roger (Phillip Clark). At the left end, she's placed the pro-Palestinian Brit boozehound Terence (Dean Nolen), while the Arab academic Khalid (Edward A. Hajj) perches approximately in the middle. The other three guests who join the discourse are the African-American minister Julia (Melanna Gray), the fireman and apparently newly declared 9/11 hero Jeff (Joseph Lyle Taylor), and the hypersensitive vegan Lydia (Jenny Bacon).

Much of the pre-opening attention paid Omnium Gatherum revolved around the actual persons on whom the authors based their eclectic gourmands. Suzie is meant to be Martha Stewart, those in the know maintained; the British snark is Christopher Hitchens; the obscene thriller writer is Tom Clancy; and the well-spoken commentator is Edward Said. No word on who the other three stand in for, although the vegan lady might be Cherry Jones, since she and Jenny Bacon turn out to have a separated-at-birth resemblance.

Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros may have hinted that vaunted personalities are being depicted here in the hope that this approach would would lend intrigue and the weight of erudition to their enterprise; as written, however, the gabfest lacks insights into the characters and their intellectual postures. To the playwrights' credit, they have put the occasional wry, wickedly snide or -- in Suzie's case -- amusingly dithering sentence into the participants' mouths. Typical of the outbursts is Suzie's comment that "a lively, contentious debate is the heart and soul of every dinner party, but I do think we should wait until the main course is served, don't you?"

The Brit wit Terence hisses the most caustic remarks and novelist Roger the most vulgar, but playing into what's expected -- as the co-authors do -- is one of the play's problems. With the exception of Lydia, who has the opportunity for some autobiographical confession before dessert and the surprise guest are served, the figures say what they'd be expected to say according to who they are and what they think. These characters are not only stereotypes, they eventually become an indictment of the models for those stereotypes; scratch them and you discover that they aren't much more than veneer.

Dean Nolen, Kristine Nielsen, and Jenny Baconin Omnium Gatherum(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Dean Nolen, Kristine Nielsen, and Jenny Bacon
in Omnium Gatherum
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
To give the work added punch, the authors have another surprise up their sleeves. In blending George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's Dinner at Eight with Anne Meara's After-Play, Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros have concocted a piece that anyone who's ever seen a J. B. Priestly entry will quickly suss out. In a way, Will Frears's direction -- the characters all sit on one side of the table, as do the dramatis personae of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" -- is too obvious a clue. David Rockwell's abstract set, with its bumpy walls, spongy draperies, and icicles chandelier; Vincent Olivieri's occasionally air-splitting sound design; and the sometimes red-hot lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer add up to a big giveaway of what's meant to be a belated, jaw-dropping reveal. This is not to say that the designers haven't done exactly what was asked of them, but any ticket buyer who doesn't figure out what's going on here isn't paying attention.

The cast members, spiffy in Junghyun Georgia Lee's costumes, have their subdued moments, but there are also too many stretches where over-the-top performing has either been encouraged or tolerated by the director. Does Dean Nolen need to pull his shirttails out of his trousers to indicate how inebriated he is? Kristine Nielsen, one of the most reliably funny ladies on stage today, might have held back a little on the dizzy Suzie. Phillip Clark barrels around the stage until his crassness is no longer effective. It's surely not Melanna Gray's fault that she has to sing an embarrassing version of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All," so the audience embarrassment that the song generates has to be forgiven her. Edward Hajj, Joseph Lyle Taylor, and Jenny Bacon keep their performances in check but poor Amir Arison, spewing hatred of the infidels, isn't allowed by the writing to keep things simple.

Given what resulted from the meeting of Jim Simpson and Anne Nelson at that dinner party, it's a shame that Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros didn't include in their Omnium Gatherum gathering a couple of stand-ins for those two. If they had, something truly memorable might have emerged.