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The odds probably aren’t all that bad on a D.C. theater patron’s seeing, in a single week, two plays that center on dinner parties. No worse than, say, the odds on seeing two solo shows in which protagonists describe survival tactics that help them negotiate a sometimes brutally hostile world.
But the odds have to be a bit longer on seeing two tricky, nonrealistic, intermissionless dinner-party plays populated by fatuous intellectuals saying modestly clever, extremely unlikely things to each other, in productions boasting stagewide turntables that rotate verrry slowly as the characters chatter. The modest cleverness is perhaps unremarkable—the A.R. Gurney standard having long since triumphed in playhouses—and, with the marketplace of ideas suffering daily degradation, the fatuousness is probably to be expected, too. But the matching turntables? What are the chances of that?
For what it’s worth, Olney Theatre’s revolve for the satirically post-apocalyptic Omnium Gatherum moves its diverse partygoers more smoothly than the one that’s spinning Life 5 3’s sitcom scientists at Round House Theatre Bethesda, and it has the added advantage of being able to move both clockwise and counterclockwise. Round House’s turntable, though, compensates by having a ribbed room divider that creates pretty patterns as it moves past the matching ribs of the set’s back wall. Let’s start with those patterns, and the spiraling neuroses they complement in playwright Yasmina Reza’s domestic comedy.
The French title, Les Trois Versions de la Vie, more precisely sets up the evening’s Melinda and Melinda premise. In the first scene, Henri (David Fendig) and Sonia (Chandler Vinton) are bickering casually about how much slack to cut their 6-year-old as he tries to delay bedtime by demanding cookies, hugs, and stories from his room, when Henri’s boss, Hubert (Paul Morella), and his wife, Ines (Kathryn Kelley), arrive early for dinner—24 hours early. Sonia’s in her bathrobe, the pantry has only wine (more than a foursome should consume on empty stomachs), and Henri, believing that Hubert holds the key to his career advancement, can’t help grovelling pathetically. Hubert can, in fact, advance Henri’s career, and because he’s something of a social sadist, Hubert spends the rest of the scene toying with his host’s emotions, manipulating his hostess, and berating his wife. Then the room divider whirls and the scene replays with some notable shifts. Henri this time gets belligerently drunk—which affects the dinner party’s awkwardness in various ways—as Ines and Sonia prove more forceful, Hubert more devious. Another turn and the scene replays a third time, with a borderline-bipolar Henri, a fiercely supportive Sonia, and…well, you get the idea.
Reza’s central notion is to juxtapose chatter that reaches for the stars (the men are both astrophysicists) with domestic down-to-earthiness (the women are both homebodies), and with an assist from an agreeably turntable-prowling cast at Round House, she more or less succeeds in making the combination lively. The author’s small talk is as chipper and as emptyheaded as it was in Art, the play for which she’s best known. And if the performers can’t quite overcome either the pretension that clouds Reza’s attempts to wax philosophical or the play’s lapses in logic (it doesn’t occur to the hostess to order pizza), they can at least make the lines bounce along amiably.
Jim Kronzer’s astronomical-moderne setting twirls so attractively at Round House that it’s easy to understand why Lou Jacob’s production wastes no time setting it in motion. The room divider makes a quarter-turn before the actors say a word, with Colin K. Bills’ lighting playing across the metallic arcs and swirls that Kronzer has placed up above the action to illustrate the galactic physics the two men spar over. It’s a graceful environment for an evening that qualifies as much ado about nothing in particular but is pleasantly undemanding.
There’s a lot more food on the table at Omnium Gatherum, and at least theoretically, a lot more substance on the play’s agenda. A 21st-century hostess-with-the-mostest modeled on Martha Stewart is throwing a sit-down bash for a carefully selected cross-section of New York types: a conservative Tom Clancy–esque novelist who wears his cultural Neanderthalism proudly on his sleeve, a vegan feminist whose green-around-the-gills queasiness is not entirely a reaction to the menu’s lamb and salmon dishes, a ditsier-than-thou religious figure, a British intellectual (who’s meant to remind you of Christopher Hitchens), a mainstream Arab scholar (more or less Edward Said), a heroic NYC firefighter, and a mystery guest who’ll show up at evening’s end to make all the polite party talk seem frivolously irrelevant.
Actually, by the time he arrives, the other guests have already done that. Omnium Gatherum received such glowing reviews in Manhattan, it’s a bit deflating to discover that authors Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros are only rehashing conversations many Washingtonians will already have had in the years since the World Trade Center fell. They’ve tarted up the evening with nouvelle-cuisine spoofery (the hostess elaborately serves her guests an appetizer that, when silver covers are removed, turns out to be the size of a lima bean), but the conversation mostly centers on arguments about the hellish political situation the world is in and the likelihood that things will only get worse.
Seating her cast at an elegantly set table with an enormous floral centerpiece, director Halo Wines arranges for the delivery of a sumptuous-looking feast but hasn’t asked anyone to deliver lines with much in the way of plausibility. Granted, naturalism isn’t really what’s called for, with sulfurous smoke rising from the hostess’s wine cellar and the sound of none-too-distant helicopters intruding on the proceedings every so often. There are plenty of hints that we’re not in a here-and-now NYC. Still, that doesn’t really excuse caricatures that are broad without being particularly amusing. The novelist comes across as little more than irredeemably rude, the vegan as strident, the hostess as socially inept, the fireman as politically clueless. The authors make the Arab scholar the voice of reason (a little too emphatically in the evening’s final moments) but let him contemplate romance, and he becomes a complete goof. The most ingratiating of the guests is the Brit intellectual, played by James Slaughter, and as he gets more drunk, he gets less interesting—not to mention intellectually dishonest, professing a disdain for critics but cribbing his best crack (“I drink to make other people more interesting”) from George Jean Nathan.
Intriguingly, Wines makes the one moment critics found overstated in New York—a final confrontation, the details of which I won’t divulge but that the audience almost has to see coming—work better than the allegedly crowd-pleasing, satirical playfulness that leads up to it. A little violence, a lot of fierce glares, and Omnium Gatherum ends pretty strikingly at Olney. Alas, the zesty finish doesn’t make up for a main course that borders on bland.CP