Though my shoulder muscles no longer automatically lock in panic every time I hear an ambulance siren, I’m not over 9-11 yet, and I doubt that most other New Yorkers are. Aside from the Dubya Empire’s hideous slow poisoning of our political life—as I write this the Justice Department is playing some demented game with the trial of Zacharias Moussaoui—every day brings a new reminder on the streets, in conversation, in the news. The theater itself—like any public gathering place—has become a target, albeit one with a low risk level; the idea of American culture held by Islamo-fascists (whom I do not confuse with believing Muslims) isn’t so far from the one held by our own Christian corporate fascists, to whom the art is meaningless except as another set of products to be mass-manufactured and mass-marketed. (The rumors that Mullah Omar is secretly the head of Clear Channel are, however, unsubstantiated.)
Inevitably, there were going to be plays about 9-11: dramatizing its events, exploring their meaning, riffing on them, or using them as a background to heighten some other aspect of life. A sense of social responsibility is certainly one of the motives for writing them, but so is the commercial sense of a hot topic to be exploited. The higher motive makes such plays by definition better than the on-cue response of a made-for-TV movie: Nobody working in the theater, for instance, would be insane enough to attempt to idealize George W. Bush, the Albert Fish of the American presidency. There’s a need to try and compass the tragedy, to explore its roots and ramifications, to put it into a wider context, so that our notion of where it came from and how we can live past it is enriched. The artist who wants to shoulder the burden of fulfilling that need is a brave soul, and deserves a hearing. But with the reverberations of that day still ringing in our minds, there’s ample reason for questioning that artist’s motives, and scrutinizing the result for hints that this, too, is a pat response for an exploitable market, meant to send theatergoers home a little rattled, a little comforted, a little saddened, but not with their post-9-11 feelings in any way illuminated, much less purged by catharsis.
The best thing to be said for both Omnium Gatherum and Recent Tragic Events is that both take at least a tiny step toward illumination, and that was apparently their respective authors’ goal; neither play looks like a money job. The sorrow is that they both look, instead, like other plays. Diving at the topic so quickly, neither Craig Wright nor the team of Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros (whom we’ll call G-V for short) has been able to find a dramatic metaphor to embody it. Like disaster victims, they seem to have grabbed the prized possessions nearest to hand and run onstage with them. Wright’s cherished objects are John Guare (the eerily matched bookish couple of Bosoms and Neglect) and Thornton Wilder (the starry-night philosophizing, the self-conscious theatricality). Rebeck and G-V go for Sartre’s No Exit (characters trapped in a luxe hell with people they loathe) and such contemporary totems of women’s playwriting as Top Girls (a dinner party of celebrities neatly covering a range of views) and Tina Howe’s The Art of Dining (the ritual aspects of a shared meal), with glances at other table-talkfests past, from Kaufman and Ferber to Buñuel’s bourgeoisie and the cocktail-chatter hostages of Doctorow’s Drinks Before Dinner.
Both plays’ derivativeness, which gives them an air of pallid mimicry despite the new energy charge provided by 9-11, is heightened by their both relying on what might be called celebrity guests, making them extensions of the TV talk show while their writing, far too often, recalls the sitcom. Wright’s heroine opportunely happens to be the great-niece of Joyce Carol Oates, who conveniently happens to have been on a plane rerouted to Minneapolis, where the action takes place, on the fateful day. (The “stage manager” explains to us that this is a “fictional” Joyce Carol Oates, whose book titles just happen to be identical to the real one’s.) Oates, represented onstage by a sock puppet, has the play’s only good speech, a terse lecture on chance and free will that’s presumably the moral; its cogency will make those who’ve had the ill luck to sit through Oates’s own plays dismiss the character as baseless.
Though played by human actors, Omnium‘s chief characters, all thinly disguised celebrities, come off much like sock puppets too, because the authors haven’t given them any existence beyond their iconic tags: left-wing talking head, right-wing talking head, gushy professional hostess, mush-brained politically correct starlet, etc. Here the message (love one another) goes to a Palestinian moderate modeled on the late Edward Said, who generously abetted their publicity by dying on Omnium‘s opening night. The banter is sometimes reasonably diverting, but even its best one-line zingers could hardly pass for wit, and you’d need the intellectual equivalent of a metal detector to find the script’s minuscule filaments of satire. The food is well described, though, making the work an excellent training piece for actors who will probably all end up as waiters if the theater continues to be this dull. Assuming New York’s restaurant business ever recovers from 9-11.