- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005

“Omnium Gatherum” is a clever and sophisticated variation on the parlor game “Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?” For the record, this critic would like to sup with Thomas Jefferson, Oscar Wilde, Dante, Dawn Powell, and Hildegarde of Bingen, to name but a few.

In the case of this 90-minute feast of wit and haute cuisine directed with master chef-skill by Halo Wines, the Martha Stewart-esque Suzie (Helen Hedman) has assembled an inspired guest list for her sumptuous and surreal dinner party, which takes place in post-September 11 New York. Among the invitees who share her huge round table (which sports the most elegant Lazy Susan you’re ever likely to see) are Roger (Richard Pelzman), a best-selling novelist (Tom Clancy, anyone?), who holds a blustery opinion and conspiracy theory on just about anything; Terrance (James Slaughter), a hard-drinking Brit in the Christopher Hitchens mold; Khalid (Michael Anthony Williams), a Middle Eastern scholar who bears a resemblance to the late Edward Said; Julia (Ida Elrod Eustis), an African-American writer on morality and spirituality with mixed feelings about success; Lydia (Peggy Yates), a vegan feminist peacenik; and Jeff (Eric M. Messner), a heroic New York firefighter.

A surprise guest shows up before the dessert course, Mohammed (Jared Swanson), a curse-hurling Arab terrorist Suzie has invited to liven things up.

The flowers are perfect — if a bit funereal — and the food, ranging from wild salmon to fingerling potatoes and “Pakistani” lamb with a Southwestern twist, evokes the precious fare of the most pretentious menus seen on the Food Network. The only thing compromising the ambience are helicopters flying overhead and ominous sounds that could be gunfire. No potpourri in the world can cover up the smell of death, either, even though Suzie informs her guests, “I have the air flown in.” Jon Savage’s set is a stunner, a revolving circular space resembling a beautiful dinner plate. The dinner party guests slowly turn and preen before the audience — who, in the intimate space of Olney’s Theater Lab, are active interlopers and eavesdroppers into this rarified gathering — and we see them from all angles, the good and the not-so-flattering.

As the wine flows and flows, the dinner guests hold forth on a variety of topics, ranging from food, faith and “Star Trek” episodes to capitalism, globalization, September 11 and the Israel-Palestine question. While the rhapsodic descriptions of cuisine are amusing (“Bread is so over,” Suzie intones), poking fun at nouvelle cuisine has been around since the first red pepper sauce reduction.

The guests’ thoughts on politics and American imperialism are hardly anything new either, and the air of self-satisfaction and privilege these characters exude can be off-putting. Yet, where “Omnium Gatherum” (the phrase means “a peculiar collection of souls”) grabs you is in its treatment of moral issues and incendiary cultural clashes. It is here that the play goes beyond a farcical, high- brow dinner party in a luxurious setting and gathers weight.

The conflicted Khalid provides the moral compass of the evening, embarking on a impassioned speech toward the end of the play about hunger in a deeper sense and about the need for food that nourishes both body and soul. He interjects a note of heartfelt reality into the evening, and this shift from the glib to the profound is masterfully executed.

The play radically shifts in tone, from painful outbursts to trivial remarks, at the tilt of a salt shaker (not that Suzie would allow anyone to pour salt on her creations), revealing the messy, contradictory humanity of the dinner guests. They argue, they console, they pontificate — anything to keep away the pervasive darkness and panic they have felt since September 11, 2001.

Miss Wines has demonstrated her gift for comedy numerous times in her career, and she transfers this deftness to directing “Omnium,” keeping the action buoyant and light while allowing for the play’s more serious aspects to permeate here and there.

She has also assembled a fine ensemble of actors, particularly Miss Hedman, who perfectly evokes domestic goddess Suzie in a performance that recalls Debbie Reynolds in her most edgy perkiness. Mr. Slaughter captures the colorations of an over-educated wino who still manages to outclass most of the guests despite being massively drunk. Mr. Williams exudes courtliness and social conscience as Khalid, and Miss Eustis deserves high marks for heroically bad singing during a priceless scene where Suzie suggests Julia might feel better if she sang, “a gospel tune or something.” “A dinner party is only as good as its guests,” Suzie chirps, and with “Omnium Gatherum,” the playwrights have outdone themselves with this gathering of souls who embrace their paradoxes, knowing that within these extremes lies life — pulsating, messy life.

***

WHAT: “Omnium Gatherum” by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Tuesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 8.

TICKETS: $29 to $39

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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