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Omnium Gatherum
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:05 pm - Omnium Gatherum
On September 14th I saw previews of Omnium Gatherum by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gerstein-Vassilaros at the Variety Arts Theatre on 3rd Avenue and 13th Stet. It had been premiered a while ago in Louisville as part of a festival of New American plays; this was its New York debut.
Both playwrights have a long list of credentials of productions and workshops that are rather surprising given both the large structural flaws and courageous originality of the fearless dialogue and elevated level of intellectual discourse. One would have expected such a brilliant but inchoately unpolished work to be turned out by an inexperienced duo of collaborators with nothing going for them but a whole lot of wit and talent.
This play is certainly worth seeing for all the reasons one goes to serious theatre; it is funny, intelligent, takes chances, is bound to make an audience uncomfortable, and yet is as clumsily made as the Tin Man in Oz. It has no development, no denouement or resolution, no main action, offers continual exposition to the very end because it is always running on empty, has no complex and rounded characters, its actors never change nor learn anything.
The direction by Will Frears, billed as a boy genius in its infocom, is uniformly itself unskilled and awful. This puerile and coarse incompetent has the actors posture and talk the same way throughout the play; how to make pauses create rhythms, do takes, or explore what happens when people arenít continually screaming and making repetitive big gestures ad nauseam is beyond his limited ken.
Also nearly all the characters in this play are writers. One would think that choice alone with sink this drama; writers like clubhouse politicians, whores and gigolos are folk who sometimes do interesting things off stage. One might think all this baggage would be lethal to a play; it isnít at all.
In this celebration of September 11th and its aftermath the playwrights have put on stage at a dinner party in hell a Cambridge English anti-Semitic drunk, a patriotic novelist sort of based on Tom Clancy, a humanist Arab sort of like Edward Said, an Arab terrorist who incidentally isnít anything like the real Al Queda terrorists, a gushingly labial rich doyen like Martha Stewart whose utterly hilarious Yuppie cooings over her own cooking is dead on the mark, a perished firemen from the WTC, a token Black lady skilled at educated fool banter who sings soul music badly, a pious Vegan feminist of hint-hint-hint possibly presumptively androgynous persuasions.
On a gorgeously crafted and cunningly supportive set by David Rockwell that nurtures the play beautifully they all say very clever things and yell at each other for an hour and a half. Yet moment by moment the static action is often pithily epigrammatic; sometimes it is intellectually quite brave and startling.
I was however by turns mostly though occasionally bored; outside of a few minor trivial expository revelations near the end there was no plot whatsoever; yet its capacity for being amusing en passant was intense and excellent.
In fact this is the only play Iíve ever seen in which occasionally a few in the urban and sophisticated audience stared to talk back to the actors; the New York epicurean army in the shadows were very shaken by the action. I thought that went out with the retirement on Second Avenue of Boris Thomashefsky.
Though they actress were playing cartoons they were at once believable objects of satire. Kristine Nielsen was scrumptious and charming as the Martha Stewart clone, Philip Clark was arch, salty, physically very much a presence of wound up violence; he got lots of subtly, mileage and complexity into his part, Dean Nolen was subtly and devilishly perfect as the initially measured but bibulous Cambridge drunk with some of the best and most dangerous lines in the play.
It is he who says:Ē Human history is a bloodbath. Thatís what humanity is good at: killing each other.Ē
As one can see from this dark and epigrammatic bit of peroration Omnium Gatherum is not afraid to say and even bawl out the unthinkable. Mellana Gray is as good as one can be in a weakly written token upper middle class Black rule; I must say she is one of the best upholsters women Iíve seen in New York a fortnight and wears a tight dress that blatantly advertises it. Yowie!
Jenny Bacon plays the insufferable and therapeutically and confrontationally suffering feminist diet freak and man-hater to a turn; she gets some roundness and subtly into a take no prisoners chilly satire of this common species of modern urban banality. The other actors arenít as notable; their parts arenít written as well; the authors generally seemed to have caved their character with tools of rough flint.
I asked myself as I was going through this very intriguing experience why the play was riveting when it broke all the rules of the craft, why the brassy one dimensional characters werenít utterly dismissable yet in fact sometimes rather touching, why at times this comedy reminded me of Shawís still startling and dangerous Heartbreak House in its ambition. I admired its wit and courage if its skill at constriction of drama was lamentably scant.
It also aims at establishing itself in theatre history. Heartbreak House has the same device at its equally not all that effective denouement of planes bringing death from the air. These similarities are so strong that I would speculate the authors of Omnium Gatherum meant consciously to do a Heartbreak House American style.
Shaw had meant his play, which also is plotless and has recognizable paradigms of the time he satirizes to me a microcosm of a society totally unable to handle what is happening to them. One might note that Shaw in turn was modeling Heartbreak House on plays like The Cherry Orchard of Chekhov and Summerfolk of Gorky, like his bully sermon a set of darkly comic dramas with similar lack of plots, intertwined hapless tepees, and dreadful catastrophes from external sources invading them at the end.
When we see Heartbreak House, The Cherry Orchard or Summerfolk we American epicures never experience them as the playwrights meant their audiences to take them. We arenít worried that czarist Russia or the British empire will imminently fall. They have fallen indeed like great redwood trees; they didnít land on us. We take them in almost as classic etudes in social decay, much as Aeschylusí audience might have responded to The Persians.
All these old plays have had sumptuous productions in New York and London in the past two years. Has September 11th invoked in our theatre a desire to meditate on models of our situation in other peopleís woes in the past?
The audience I saw that had attended the Variety Theatre that night found Omnium Gatherum oddly fascinating irrespective of its bravery, amusing wit and other real virtues. It was to us what the Chekhov, Gorky and Shaw plays had been to their contemporary audiences, a dour celebration of our sense of dread and incapacity to meet a social situation that has baffled and injured us.
Omnium Gatherum remended me at bottom of a covert memorial service. Even the best catered obsequities in our species are clandestinely about not paying homage to the perished as much as revealing in public how those who are living have resolved the loss. Both tragedies and funerals are ghoulish rituals in which only the audience survives. This kind of theatre blurs those lines.
In this play the actors are all dead. It is the fear of the audience that we are helpless as they are; we are terrified that we may soon join them. Thatís why this play is horrifically fascinating.
Omnium Gatherum like this prior plays including the masterful granddaddy of them all, The Persians present people with charm and intelligence who are unable to make sense of the misfortune that has happened to them. We in the audience respond to their bewilderment and emptiness because we ourselves are afraid that some notion of security and refuge for the depredations of nature has gone out of our lives.
We know now that we have real enemies who can destroy our life or make us panicked by our shadow if we are alive, that all the paradigms though they are different from one valley to another lack even the barest resources to meet there life or death dilemmas. The wit hides the terror as humor often does.
We leave Omnium Gatherum at least knowing we are baffled and acarid as the character sin this play are. This was the intent of Chekhov, Gorky and Shaw. Its not as if the leaders of our country who have surfaced have nay more answers than the flimsy characters in this play do.
Itís also why Omnium Gatherum like the prior plays of other authors in other worlds were comedies. To pay money to experience a direct presentation of our dismal and confused plight without a few laughs would be intolerable. Aeschylus and his theatre descendants have felt for millennia that after some dangerous watershed in our national history we all benefit by sitting with our community in a theatre and sharing our thoughts under the direction of a playwright in a brave and intrepid way.
Itís at bottom primal and a tribal thing. In a crisis we need to set a direction, first to share the despair, the sense of helplessness. We used to have such plays in New York during the Great Depression; oddly there was never any comparable attention in theatre paid to World War Two, not too much in literature either. World War One theatre of this sort was equally meager; it gave us only What Price Glory?
Though America is a decentralized country that really does need the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, even the president, a huge nation in which nothing like the Arab attacks could ever do more than harass us, this republic for the first time since 1812 has felt the wounds of invasion; at least this time we didnít have to deal with a serious foe like the British nor wonder how we are gong to go forward after the British burned down Washington.
The power of Omnium Gatherum comes from its very fearless focus a la Aeschylus, Chekhov, Gorky and Shaw on our national follies that make us weak and vulnerable to our foes. Its theatre that provides a meeting place for us we supposedly are supposedly guaranteed in our First Amendment. The cartoon characters mirror our own dismal and conscious drift as a nation into being as easily muscled as Elmer Fudd or Donald Duck.
The aim of such theatre isnít to offer solutions though Omnium Gatherum does smuggest in passing we centrally ought to feed people, not colonize or bomb them. It doesnít and canít have conflicts of white and black hatted cowboys; in such audacious and unsentimental dramas everybody is a villain. In this theatre, armed wit the healing tools of Juvenal and Pope, hopefully if we see ourselves with warts we can take up the surgery that will rid us of the perverse growths that deeply disfigure us.
My sole cavil with the cognitive discourse of Omnium Gatherum is that the otherwise fearless authors have giving us in their only lapse into sentimentality a poor and presumably very young terrorist with coarse ideas about the value of virgins whose rather improbable insights are that his culture has been so damaged by colonialism that it can only bring death to its enemies as well as itself.
I think this seriously doesnít define our national foes; as a result the play loses a certainly power it might have had were it focused on the more interesting reality.
The terrorists were not unlike us. They were mature, usually over thirty, they had money, they had been epicures and knew precisely what they were attacking, were religious heros and martyrs of a flamboyant type we can see as well not long ago in Western history in Christianity as well as more recently in Communism and Anarchism.
In fact if any of the sybaritical Africans in this play had had a change of heart, one of their directions of all of them might have been to become terrorists themselves. They were cheated out of their real lives as much as anybody. This like so many other ways the play might have had a development, is never taken up by the authors. Aeschylus and Shaw would have smelled out this stratagem and gone that route.
I would recommend this play not merely because it is mostly amusing; it is proper fare for anyone who has any kind of deep traumatic feeling about September 11th. It is a satire that takes no prisoners in a land where consumerists and consumerism have become the established church of this country. It is tainted with a sinking notion that we donít have the leaders nor even the populace to meet our currently shared national difficulties.
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