Arts Dinner was da bomb

In the wake of 9-11, a zealous hostess chokes on big ideas

It's one of the ironies of the American entertainment biz that the events of 9-11, which have barely been touched by the major movie studios, are already the center of a considerable body of work churned out by the more impoverished legitimate theater. From Anne Nelson's The Guys - a eulogy for New York firemen - to David Hare's evisceration of Donald Rumsfeld, Stuff Happens, the stage has provided an opportunity for reflection and debate that the cinema has largely ignored. In a new San Pedro Playhouse production, Theresa Rebeck and Alexander Gersten-Vassilaros's Omnium Gatherum, a 2003 regional and New York City hit, finally blows into San Antonio with its potent concoction of 9-11 repartee and pathos.

In Omnium Gatherum, a Martha Stewart model tries for multi-culti dialogue amid sharp instruments and sharper barbs. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Omnium Gatherum is less a play than a symphony - or occasionally cacophony - of voices. The plot is nearly non-existent: in the wake of 9-11, a wealthy, slightly daffy hostess (a thinly veiled Martha Stewart) decides to throw a "lively" dinner party for several companions, including a Middle-Eastern Muslim and intellectual (Vincent Contrell); a right-wing Tom Clancy-esque author and firebrand (Bill Martin); a vegan earth mother (Lucia McRae); an Oxbridge dandy and bon vivant (Joel Crabtree); an out-of-tune African-American minister (Cyndi Lucas); a stolid, agreeable 9-11 fireman (Eric Lozano); and a very, very special guest (Faisal Munir). The fun of the play - and, subject matter notwithstanding, it is fun - is watching these discordant personalities duke it out over topics ranging from terrorism and the Middle East to walnuts and one-night stands.

The problem is, of course, that the hostess (hilariously portrayed by Magda Porter) overplays her hand. As the evening spins out of control and careens into actual, physical violence, the dinner table mirrors the world it was putatively analyzing. Subject and object blur. What had been a comedy of manners turns dark and ominous, not least of all because of the smoke and fire that snake onto the stage. Strong ensemble acting - including excellent turns from Contrell and Martin - keeps the action taut, and Lozano's 11th-hour monologue on the horrors of 9-11 touches the audience with its simplicity and unpretentiousness.

Omnium Gatherum

8pm Fri, 7pm Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Through Oct 2
$20 adult; $18 senior, military;
$12 student

The Cellar, San Pedro Playhouse
800 W. Ashby

Art Peden's direction is skillful and unobtrusive, and works hard to overcome the biggest interpretative obstacle of the evening: how to mold a static dinner party into a flowing tableau. (Watching others eat is nifty for five minutes, but can soon feel like a commercial for the Palm Restaurant. The food smelled delicious, by the way.) Larger theaters have staged the play with a rotating dinner table; it's a good idea, but one impossible in the Cellar's smaller space. Instead, characters bounce up and about the table with alarming frequency, though never to the point of distraction.

On opening night, the pace of the show exhibited some irregularities, with unintentionally overlapping lines and hesitancies. The production design, by Stephen Montalvo and Ernesto Gomez, looks and sounds perfectly metaphysical. Only the servants' costumes need some rethinking: As it is, they look like the hell-spawn cross of ninjas and Oompa Loopas.

In sum, a strong opening to the Cellar's season. And as for peace in the Middle East after 9-11, well, let's all drink to that.

By Thomas Jenkins


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