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Perfect Blend
By James Yeara

Omnium Gatherum
By Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, Directed by Laura Margolis
StageWorks/Hudson, through Oct. 17

Imagine a Monty Python sketch about Martha Stewart dropping acid at an elegant soiree on the rim of Hell, where the guests include Robert Ludlum, Gloria Steinem, Tony Blair, Captain America, Oprah Winfrey, and Osama bin Laden. Or picture acclaimed and eclectic director Julie Taymor staging an Al Franken adaptation of the smarmy The Five People You Meet in Heaven starring Bill O’Reilly.

If you can do either of those, you can begin to appreciate the excellence of StageWorks/Hudson’s current production of the wildly inventive, funny, and cutting Omnium Gatherum. A worthy successor to the bold excellence of previous StageWorks hits such as Wit, Brutal Imagination and The Laramie Project, Omnium Gatherum is what critics pray for when they enter a theater: a production of a play that makes you laugh, lets you think, challenges conventions, and leaves you room to question, remember and smile. StageWorks/Hudson’s Omnium Gatherum is theater at its very best.

However, Omnium Gatherum isn’t for those who fear thinking, i.e., fundamentalists of any affiliation (though they would benefit most from the play’s theme) or those who like their theater to be flaccid and familiar. I watched the quintessential L.L. Bean couple walk out five minutes into the play when Kahlid (an impressive and intelligent Tony Markham) explained “why they hate us.” If the couple had stayed, they would have learned not only that, but also why “they” like us, why we like us, why we hate us—and they would have laughed the stripes off their matching flannel shirts. That kind of humor is a rare theatrical achievement for a 100-minute intermissionless play. Omnium Gatherum—“a miscellaneous collection of things or persons; a confused mixture; a medley”—makes the strange familiar, the familiar fantastic, and the flaccid and facile Viagra-hard. If Jean-Paul Sartre had collaborated with George S. Kaufman and Charlie Chaplin had directed, Omnium Gatherum might have been the result.

The play is set in scenic designer Elisa Viola’s excellent luxury Manhattan apartment, complete with a literal stairway to Hell downstage center that glows red and spews smoke whenever any actor reluctantly exits down into the bowels. It features a wild mix of dinner-party repartee, bon mots, fisticuffs, existentialist angst, philosophical meanderings, palate-pandering descriptions of appetizers, entrees, and desserts, and politically incorrect and snicker-inducing one-liners.

The cast of this “perfect” dinner party—a mix of six famous New Yorkers (including one fireman) hosted by an equally famous blonde domestic diva (an excellent Susan Greenhill)—handles the mix of political, religious, social and anthropological chat and point/counterpoint dialogue set in a post-9/11 Manhattan high-rise. This plotless and surreal but highly symbolic journey could have been a tedious, didactic bore, but director Laura Margolis and her ensemble cast of eight (in addition to Markham and Greenhill, Kevin McClarnon, the always believable Robin Leslie Brown, Shona Tucker, Andy Prosky, Paul Carter, and W. Mark Young) keep the characters human. These eight actors create individuals, not ciphers; people, not personifications of ideas. The result is a rare mix of laughter, provocations, ideas, and images that make StageWorks/Hudson’s Omnium Gatherum a hit not to be missed.

In Good Conscience

All My Sons
By Arthur Miller, directed by Eric Peterson
Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington, Vt., through Oct. 17

For a year of increased political awareness, the region’s theater season offered few productions that dealt significantly with current sociopolitical concerns. The Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Heartbreak House and the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Design for Living were notable exceptions of plays that resonated powerfully with issues of the day. With its season-closer, All My Sons, Oldcastle makes a distinguished entry into this realm of conscience-driven theater.

Set just after the end of World War II, Arthur Miller’s potent classic about war-profiteering greed and its terrible aftermath remains eerily timely. Joe Keller is an industrialist whose factory manufactured faulty engine blocks that were used in aircraft that claimed the lives of American airmen fighting the war. Exonerated from charges, Joe has returned to his home where he lives in relative peace and freedom from guilt. The wrongdoing was attributed to his partner, who has been imprisoned and has earned the disgust of his grown children, Anne and George.

Keller’s precarious peace is interrupted one fateful day when his son, Chris, announces plans to marry Anne, who was previously engaged to Chris’ brother, Larry, a WWII pilot who is presumed dead by all but his mother, Kate. Anne’s arrival at the Keller homestead sets in motion the gears of an absorbing drama that marks Miller’s first foray into modern tragedy.

While Oldcastle does well enough with the drama, it doesn’t do much more than flirt with the tragic elements.

Lacking sufficient weight to capture the darker side of Joe Keller, Phillip Lance does play the role with conviction and draws an earnest portrait of an ordinary man who is content to be master of his well-groomed backyard. When forced to grapple with larger issues, Lance’s Joe suffers believably, but not cathartically. He seems more like a hapless Chekhovian aristocrat than a struggling Sophoclean king.

In this production, more emphasis seems to be given the Kate of Wendy Barrie-Wilson, an actress who tends to dominate the stage but who doesn’t have enough nuance to illuminate it. She offers a passionate portrayal, however it is sometimes marred by indicating emotions more than living them. Where she should hide information, she makes a show of the concealment.

Although he may ultimately be too light for the role’s darkening aspects, more persuasive work is contributed by the Chris of Shawn Davis, even if his muscularity and shoulder tattoo are out of keeping with the time period. Lovely and fragile as a peach blossom, Jennifer Kaeppel looks as if she could have been plucked from the ’40s. The doe-eyed Kaeppel is a striking Anne, and, like Davis, she is an eminently likeable performer. Both, however, need to go a little further in rending and rendering the play’s pith.

The most intense and sustained work is delivered by Kent Burnham as George; it’s just a pity that costume designer Patti Brundige did not tailor his jacket to more effectively hide the distracting bulge of his “missing” arm.

Contributing much to the play’s initial atmosphere of innocence are Doug Ryan and Sophia Garder, whose spontaneity again refreshes.

Also compelling is Richard Howe’s set, one of the best ever at OTC. Howe has boldly designed a bucolic backyard with hints of unrest and danger. An angled bench on a hexagonal dais cleverly suggests a throne that is entirely appropriate to our first visions of Joe as the benevolent ruler of his piece of the land.

It is impossible to regard any version of this play after the magnificent one directed by Barry Edelstein on the WTF’s Nikos Stage. While that production released the full force of tragedy that underlies Miller’s work, Peterson’s production comes across more as a serious melodrama that is fairly engrossing but not quite staggering and cataclysmic. Such productions are rare, however, and Peterson’s will suffice as a distinct step in the right direction for his theater company that has been too long in left field.

—Ralph Hammann

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