There's a genre of jokes that begins: "A rabbi, a priest and (whoever) walk into ... " That's close to the set-up of Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros' Omnium Gatherum.
The play, receiving its area premiere at Olney Theatre Center, takes place shortly after 9/11. Its title is translated by one of the characters as "a collection of peculiar souls," but this particular collection is more stereotyped than peculiar.
A Martha Stewart-like hostess is giving a gourmet dinner party for a half-dozen guests, including a best-selling spy novelist, an African-American minister, a feminist vegan, a British writer, an Islamic scholar and a New York fireman.
Designer Jon Savage's set is one of the wittiest aspects of Olney's production, which is staged in the round in the center's intimate Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. The guests sit at a giant, round dining table that slowly revolves, so that no one in the audience is stuck staring at an actor's back for very long.
There are some other intriguing touches as well - along with the steady stream of gustatory goodies. Serving carts glide in magically, and whenever the door to the wine cellar opens, smoke gushes out.
The argumentative conversation covers topics ranging from capitalism to globalization, faith, government funding of the arts, Israel and even Star Trek. Whenever the discourse gets too heated, Helen Hedman - who's a hoot as the perpetually perky hostess - pops in to introduce another elaborate course. (A choice example is a lamb dish that she describes as "a favorite among moderate Shiites ... re- imagined with a lively Southwestern flair.")
Halo Wines' direction keeps the incendiary banter flying, and she also lets the actors play their various stereotypes to the hilt. Richard Pelzman's novelist is a rude male chauvinist; Ida Elrod Eustis' minister is an earthy peacemaker; Peggy Yates' feminist vegan is humorless; and Eric M. Messner's fireman is the all-American boy, treated like a child by Hedman's character.
Just before dessert, a seventh guest is introduced. He's supposed to present a threat, but Jared Swanson looks far too sweet and gentle to be a credible menace.
The real problem, however, is that, like those priest-and-rabbi jokes, Omnium Gatherum is simply too formulaic. The playwrights were probably aware of this because they actually include one of these jokes in the script. But acknowledging the problem isn't the same as solving it.
Omnium Gatherum puts more meat on the table than in its characters, and no matter how much food is consumed on stage - and a great deal is - in the end, this dinner party leaves you hungering for more substantial fare.
Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road,Olney
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and most Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and April 21 and May 5. Through May 8