Omnium Gatherum
West End Theater, 1220 SW Taylor, 223-4240, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm, through Aug 14, $18

The Pulitzer Prize-nominated script for Omnium Gatherum is witty, provocative and smart; with a script this good, any failure can only be attributed to the production company itself. Thankfully, WillieWorks Productions, in only their second production (after 2004's The Bald Soprano/The Lesson), does the work complete justice.

Omnium Gatherum is set at a post-9/11 dinner party, an exquisitely catered event with a carefully chosen guest list. The hostess has invited a diverse group including a Clive Cussler-style novelist, a female Arab scholar, and a New York fireman. That this lineup seems contrived to foster conflict is cheerfully acknowledged by the hostess, who struggles all night to maintain a "lively debate" without letting the conversation devolve into shouting matches. She fails, of course; with each course of the meal she serves, the guests embark upon another round of sharp, animated arguments about globalization, gender issues, or the future of the Arab world. The dinner table thus effectively acts as a microcosm of U.S. society, as the characters dine well and discuss the problems of the day in comfort while outside, mysterious crashes and explosions indicate that all is not well with the rest of the world.

The stellar cast portrays characters that are at once likeable and flawed. Each guest operates from a lightly different set of biases, and watching them argue is at once fascinating and familiar. Occasionally relieving the 90 minutes of heated political conversation is comedy provided by Joe Bolenbaugh in a hilarious performance as a more-ironic-than-thou British intellectual, downing glasses of wine and tossing off lines like, "I drink to make other people interesting."

The play's No Exit-inspired finale avoids glib answers, ending instead on an unsettling note that seems the only way possible to conclude a discussion of our socio-political reality. I'm not sure I've ever seen an audience as absorbed in a production as they were in this one, and no wonder. When compelling performances combine with an intelligent, hilarious script, it can be pretty hard to look away.