Theater of the Unnerved

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The food onstage is sumptuous and real, from the thimble-size beef tartare amuse-bouche to the spiced Moroccan lamb with couscous — pronounced, as the Martha Stewart — style hostess is careful to note, "coush-coush." The dinner guests are an array of gabby intellectuals loosely modeled on real-life intellectuals — a Christopher Hitchens — type British lefty, a Tom Clancy — like novelist with pro-war views, a Middle East expert who recalls the late Edward Said. They sit around a long oval table, with a chandelier listing overhead and helicopters whirring periodically, ominously, offstage. After heated debates on everything from Palestinian violence to vegan diets, there's a surprise guest and an apocalyptic climax that sends us out of the theater with a sense that something profound has just transpired.

Or should have. Omnium Gatherum, a play by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros that was a hit of the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., last spring and just opened off-Broadway, is pretty much a mess as drama — both tendentious and trivial, underplotted and overacted. But it's the most ambitious example yet of a theatrical type that is getting hard to ignore: the post-9/11 play.


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Dramatists began struggling with how to respond to Sept. 11 almost immediately. First came reverence — hushed expressions of grief like Anne Nelson's The Guys, a heartfelt work in which a reporter helps a New York City fire captain compose eulogies for his dead comrades. Next came irony — plays that focused mostly on the persistence of personal dramas in the face of this great big one. Exhibit A was Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat, a caustic drama about a married man who is late for work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 because he's visiting his mistress — and then contemplates using the tragedy to disappear with her and finally leave his wife.

But these artistic tropes have quickly grown familiar and inadequate. A new play like Jonathan Bell's Portraits, composed of monologues by fictional people touched by 9/11 in various ways (including another philandering husband), already feels dated. So post-9/11 plays are moving on, trying to lift the event into a new realm, transforming it with allegory and metaphysics. But in grasping at grandiosity, the newest generation of post-9/11 plays is losing a grip on any feeling for the concrete, recognizable ways that real human beings reacted to the tragedy.

Take Craig Wilson's Recent Tragic Events, another off-Broadway arrival, starring Heather Graham as a Minneapolis single woman who has a blind date on the night of Sept. 12. The play wavers between curdled sitcom (the evening is interrupted by a busybody neighbor), witless absurdism (a visit by Joyce Carol Oates — played by a sock puppet) and failed melodrama, as Graham waits for word from her twin sister, who may or may not have been in the towers. Then it all takes off into the stratosphere, with a discourse on free will and determinism, a stage manager's voice issuing disembodied, godlike stage directions for the final scene, and a set that dissolves to reveal a starry night sky. Heavy.

This sort of thing may satisfy the need of playwrights to find new forms to encompass an incomprehensible event, but it risks leaving behind the small human truths that really resonate. That sort of homely detail was neatly captured in the sketch that playwright Lynn Nottage contributed to a festival of short works about 9/11 presented at New York City's Town Hall a year ago. In it, three sets of parents are gathered for their children's first day of preschool. They anxiously watch the kids at play, make snippy comments about the other parents, debate whether to interfere when one child conks another with his Legos. Finally, assured that all is well, they step outside to gaze at the New York City skyline. One mother takes out a video camera to commemorate the day. She records the time. It is 8:40 a.m., Sept. 11.

The frisson of that moment conveyed, as well as anything else yet put onstage, the horribleness of that day, when everything changed. It's what theater can help us recapture and never forget. Helicopters not required.