Matthew Reddin

“Omnium Gatherum” offers a dinner party with food for thought

By - Sep 25th, 2011 01:20 pm

“Omnium Gatherum” brings in a motley crew of characters, and lets the sparks fly over dinner. From left: Ben George, Mohammad ElBsat, Amy Hansmann, Kevin Hogan, Shayne Steliga (front), and Toni Martin. Photo courtesy Windfall Theatre.

Amid one of the many arguments that flare up during Windfall Theatre’s season opener Omnium Gatherum, Suzie, the hostess of this dinner party of a play, calls for a change of pace.

“What can we agree on?” she asks, a hint of panic in her voice.

Dead silence.

Many such silences occur in Omnium Gatherum, silences in which the bottom falls out of the ornate structure of this fancy gathering.

Playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten Vassilaros take on big issues in a play they wrote not long after 9/11. The occasional awkward silence is to be expected, but they feel like unholy aberrations in the otherwise frenzied conversation. Yet another bottle of wine is required to wash them away.

The guests can at least agree on the exquisite food. For a while, the decorum and politeness that come with fine food keep the dinner party running like a well-oiled doomsday machine.

When the decorum falls away, the arguments begin. The extravagantly wealthy hostess (Carol Zippel) has assembled guests certain to rub each other the wrong way. Director Maureen Kilmurry has assembled a gifted cast as well-suited for to their roles as their characters are ill-suited to one another’s company.

Roger (Kevin Hogan), Suzie’s oldest friend, and Lydia (Amy Hansmann) cross swords first. He’s a Tom Clancy sort of spy novelist and right-wing extremist. She a vegan; she won’t eat anything on the table, and she grows feistier as she gets hungrier.

Just as fiery are Terence (Ben George), a boorish British intellectual who hoards the table’s red wine while dealing out cutting jibes, and Khalid (Mohammad ElBsat), an Arab scholar with passions raging beneath a calm exterior. African-American minister and social climber Julia (Toni Martin) tries to play peacemaker, until she herself begins to lose her composure. A humble firefighter, Jeff (Christopher Elst), sits quietly through most of the dinner, but his occasional simple eloquence makes you catch your breath.

Then there’s the special guest (Shayne Steliga); we’ll get back to him.

The arguments cover war, peace, wealth, worth, hate, love and everything in between. Sometimes they’re funny; Suzie uses Star Trek’s Prime Directive to justify staying out of other cultures. Sometimes they’re terrifying, as when Terence’s British cool finally snaps in an argument with Roger over Israel’s border rights. They’re always fascinating.

Equally fascinating is the near-fanatical devotion to preserving the sanctity of the dinner party. And sanctity’s not a word used lightly; Suzie herself identifies a spiritual element to her work. There’s something calming about sitting in a room, even with strangers, and worshiping the one thing you all agree on. People go to church for the same reason.

But hellish interjections punctuate this enterprise. When door open, garish red light intrudes on the dining room. Suzie makes occasional head-turning comments about fires and “imported air.” The intermittent whirr of helicopters stops conversation dead. Those silencs are the worst of all.

But they are also an excuse for more wine. We begin to see how the luxury of this dinner party is a shield for hostess and guests. It blocks out a frightening, chaotic world with immaculate place settings, charming if argumentative dinner companions, and three orderly courses followed by desert.

The special guest upends that order. His identity’s not especially hard to anticipate, but I’ll keep it undisclosed nonetheless. When you’re watching Omnium Gatherum, it’s easy to pretend he’s not really coming, even though you know he’s waiting offstage — a metaphor all in itself.

The play ends as it began, with guests sitting at an infinite banquet. We’re the ones who have to get out of our seats and walk back into the world.

Windfall Theatre’s performance of Omnium Gatherum runs through Oct. 8, with shows at 8 p.m. all nights. Tickets are $20 and can be reserved at (414) 332-3963. For more information, visit Windfall’s website.

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