Caught in the Crossfire At Dinner Party From Hell

I’m not sure how I feel at present about all the plays this fall wrestling with the tragedy of Sept. 11. One is Recent Tragic Events , a soap opera with a twist; another, Portraits , is a solemn affair; and the one I just caught, the well-received Omnium Gatherum by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, is a dark comedy, set at a fashionable dinner party from hell.

My uncertainty about the 9/11 dramas has little to do with questions of “taste,” more with opportunism and special pleading. It would take the greatest of playwrights to enlarge our already broken hearts and weary minds about an unspeakable drama that we all witnessed. But if my doubts are misplaced, I do at least know how I feel about dinner parties like Omnium Gatherum ‘s. They are to be avoided.

As its ridiculous society hostess, Suzie-a not-too-subtle satire of Martha Stewart, who’s long since satirized herself-puts it with glib self-satisfaction at the close: “A dinner party is only as good as the guests.” No truer words are spoken the entire night.

Here I ought to confess, perhaps, that I myself usually find dinner parties hard work unless I know everyone there. In which case, I tend to return home moaning ungraciously, “Why can’t we meet anyone new? ” For instance, I’ve attended dinner parties when Christopher Hitchens has been a guest more often than either of us would wish. But the reassuring thing about him is that you need never utter a word; he speaks for all. Alas-for me, anyway-one of the dinner guests in Omnium Gatherum is a political pundit and drunk British loudmouth who’s meant as a parody of Mr. Hitchens. I mean, can’t we meet anyone new ?

Never mind the other guests for the moment. How was the food? The banquet served during Omnium Gatherum is billed as “by Alfred Portale,” and the actors were wolfing down everything in sight between their lines. Well, you know what actors are like. They’re always hungry .

From the amuse bouche to the wild Columbia River salmon served on a tower of ruby crescent fingerling potatoes, confit tomato and poached fennel with warm champagne vinaigrette; to the roasted Moroccan spiced lamb with couscous, curried corn, cumin-scented carrots, harissa and preserved lemon; to the Belgian endive and Anjou pear salad with toasted walnuts, Roquefort cheese and fresh walnut oil (not domestic); to the Tri-Star strawberry mille-feuilles with mascarpone custard, orange flower water, pineapple mint and strawberry coulis drizzled with 25-year-old Balsamico Traditionale, we had a perfect combination for today: gourmet food and celebrities.

Besides the obvious, easy targets of Martha and Christopher, there’s Tom-Tom Clancy, who’s reincarnated here as a flag-waving, best-selling novelist and fascist ignoramus named Roger. There’s also a Palestinian scholar who’s a pedestrian pedant named Khalid. Intended to be the intellectual of the squabbling group, he comes out with unsayable stuff like, “So we are, then, all of us seeking, let’s say, a false oneness to pull us through the demanding duality of life.”

Khalid is modeled on Edward W. Said, who died of leukemia just as the play was opening. The authors weren’t to know of Said’s last struggle, and they should lampoon whomever they want, dead or alive. They also portray their resident Palestinian sympathetically as the lonely “Voice of Reason.” But the loss of Said, the polymath and truly principled man of challenging ideas, only reminds us further of the complete coarsening of all ideas here.

Attending the dinner party of Omnium Gatherum is like overdosing on those shrill screamers of Crossfire . There’s nothing in it for us except cheap sound bites. Much of Omnium Gatherum isn’t acted, but shouted. (Just like TV.) Occasionally the ominous whir of helicopters is heard to remind us of the evening’s dark “relevance.” The sound bites that are meant to pass as social satire and serious moral debate in the shadow of 9/11 last about two minutes each. Nothing too taxing, then; nothing to trouble us at all.

Among the stew of topics that crop up superficially in a checklist marked “Relevant Discourse,” “Laughs” and “Surprise!” are the following:

American capitalism versus Third World poverty; the appeal of gloriously appointed bathrooms; Ghandi versus Hitler; prepared food; East and West culture; veganism; the danger of entertainment conglomerates; the exploitation of cheap Third World labor; meaning; Star Trek ; faith, real or imagined; Israel versus Palestine; terrorism and peace; cruel Times book reviewers …. But, alas, there isn’t a single idea that’s fresh or untrivialized in shouting matches that pander to prejudice and ignorance.

“Unbridled capitalism has long been a concern to the global community,” announces Khalid, offering just the sort of pompous platitude that would send anyone to sleep. But the social-climbing ditz of a hostess with the lifestyle empire and attention-deficit disorder interrupts Khalid to say to Julia, “Love your jacket. Is that Donna’s?”

It gets laughs. Donna. Well, we know …. All the guests are types with second-rate minds. Lydia is the neurotic feminist and fundamentalist vegan. (How would you like to be at a dinner party with her? ) Julia is the African-American writer and tedious, blanket dogmatist who sings Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” badly. (The joke is she can’t sing; it’s a tired sitcom routine.) But let’s take stock: We have the ridiculous Martha hostess; the drunk, leftish Brit; the bullying American patriot; the Palestinian intellectual; the feminist; and the African-American. There’s also a fireman.

Now, what dinner party would be complete without a pet fireman? Unless the fireman is symbolic .

Warning! I am about to give the plot away. There’s “A Surprise Guest” who’s brought on during the salad. He’s a terrorist named Mohammed.

And by now, the evening has become as unhinged as the world it’s trying to satirize. Dramatic scenes ensue. Jeff, the fireman, has summarized a meaningful Star Trek episode for us, but otherwise he hasn’t said much. That’s because he’s dead. He died in the towers (and relates how he died). Mohammed is dead, too. “No virgins,” he observes (to laughter).

And those are the insights, and those are the jokes. And Jean-Paul Sartre, where are you now? He’s in hell, actually. And he’s thinking, “I knew I was right!” It seems to me that Omnium Gatherum -Latin for “a collection of peculiar souls,” you know-detonates on its own silliness. The evening ends on an apocalyptic note, a somber warning as all dance merrily to “I’ve Got the World on a String.” Food for thought there! Foolish people existed before 9/11 and will exist until the end of time. But do you want to have dinner with them?