Dinner bell

A fancy banquet serves as metaphor for America in a post-9/11 play at USF

click to enlarge TERROR AT THE TABLE: Elegant arguments against a background of distant fire. - Bob Gonzalez
Bob Gonzalez
TERROR AT THE TABLE: Elegant arguments against a background of distant fire.

Most responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, took one of two forms. The first treated the attacks as if they were aimed at a storybook America, an innocent place so prosperous and free that it naturally provoked great jealousy among the captives of the impoverished, authoritarian netherworld. According to this view, all that we'd done to bring on the attacks was succeed: at capitalism, at world power, at sweetness and light. This America was not only beautiful for its spacious skies, it was morally, politically and spiritually beautiful. This was a nation without a shadow, a virgin among strumpets, and our fundamental purity just made the attacks more unthinkable. How could such evil befall so immaculate a victim?

But there was another response, too, one that wasn't nearly as reassuring. According to this view, America was a much-compromised nation with blood on its hands and enemies just about everywhere. This was a country built on the graveyards of native peoples, turned into an economic juggernaut on the backs of black slaves, inventor of atomic bombs and the only nation ever to use them, devoted to domination of the earth. This was the America that consumed the planet's resources as if no one else needed them, that supported (and installed) torturous, repressive regimes worldwide, and that was stunningly oblivious to the suffering of Third World populations. If some people cheered when they heard about the World Trade Center — and we know that some people did — it was because this latter America was, in their minds, the target. We in the states thought of 3,000 innocent dead and we wept; but others thought mainly of the gaping wound to Tyrannosaurus and rejoiced. Of course, each group thought the other grotesquely deceived.

Well, now there's a play that dares — cautiously — to ask which of the two notions — America the Good or America the Compromised — is really the more accurate. The play is called Omnium Gatherum, it's written by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, and it's currently being given an adequate, if not dazzling, production at TheatreUSF. Even with the production's defects, this is a drama worth seeing: it's original and intrepid and just as challenging to its audience's assumptions as good theater ought to be. Most important, it offers an interpretation of 9/11 that was mostly missing from American discourse in the months following that atrocity, and that deserves a hearing, if only to be countered. It does something else, too: it gives us an image of America — a stage image, yes, but a powerful one — that may be just what we need as we try to understand our embattled country. It's not every play that offers such a searingly provocative metaphor.

The metaphor goes like this: America is a Banquet in Hell. That's right, Hell, which may or may not mean the rest of the planet. As Omnium Gatherum begins, seven persons are enjoying an elegant dinner party, hosted by the ridiculously earnest gourmet Suzie (Caitlin McDonald). There's British Terence (Kyle A. Davis), always ready for an argument; ill-tempered Lydia (Crystal Farina), with a sour word for every occasion; moderate Muslim Khaleda (Soolaf Rasheid), trying quietly to make everyone see reason; dignified fireman Jeff (Patrick Howsare), who was one of the rescuers at the WTC; contentious novelist Roger (Spaz Walden), who seems to represent the American mainstream; and prayerful Julia (Mikhaile Solomon), who does her best to argue for peace. The location of this banquet is never directly stated, but again and again a curtain parts to show us a bright orange light and a great deal of smoke — and we can only imagine that further in, untold thousands are suffering, as at this moment people suffer in Darfur and in Niger. As the guests, mostly silent about the fire beyond the curtain, try one fancy dish after the next, there are occasional rumblings of aircraft, explosions in the distance, interruptions of the electricity, even a call for everyone to take shelter under the table. And on and on the conversation goes: about American domination of most of the world's wealth, about fashion, wine, veganism, 9/11, cigarettes, being a superpower, colitis, war and peace, the need for community, the Israelis and the Palestinians, religious faith and television game shows. And as the suspicion grows that this conversation itself is only possible because of some really vast crimes, vast apathy, vast ignorance, an unexpected visitor arrives — to make the discussion all the more dreadful. By the end of the play, there just may be a judgment on the whole dubious enterprise.

While the USF production is far from stellar, there are a couple of standouts who deserve to be mentioned. As Martha Stewart clone Suzie, Caitlin McDonald is delightful: so narrowly focused on food and drink, on good dinner party conviviality, that she eventually becomes robotic, less than human but very, very funny. And as fireman Jeff, Patrick Howsare is the image of quiet dignity and sobriety: the less he says about his heroics, the more we account him a hero. Also fine is William Lorenzen's set, featuring as upscale a dinner setting as you'll find west of Camelot, numerous bottles of wine, candles and crystal. David Mann's direction emphasizes the play's realism — a choice which results in the maximum of irony — and Jeff Boe's lighting helpfully places us in some middle realm between fact and fantasy. Thanks to Boe, the Studio 120 theater space becomes just mysterious enough to make us wonder where we really are.

We are, it seems, in denial. If Omnium Gatherum is to be believed, we don't want to know it, but in fact we're all Neros, fiddling away while the world burns. We're enjoying a banquet while across the borders people starve, and we don't want to realize that such a condition naturally breeds rage. 9/11 was a shock because we didn't know that we were hated. And we don't want to know; if we did, we might have to take steps.

That's quite a message for an American play in the age of the Patriot Act.

But it's the inescapable message of this unusually penetrating drama.