NEW YORK -- For Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, the simplest way to cope with the attacks of Sept. 11 was to pick up their pens and start writing.
The playwrights had already been part of a close-knit writing group since 1999, and the terrorist attacks brought them even closer together. They soon found themselves gathering on an almost-daily basis to talk and write about a wide range of emotions brought on by Sept. 11, from their grief over the event itself to their bewilderment by some remarks made by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the attacks.
"We were so engaged by what was happening. We all wanted to do something, needless to say," Gersten-Vassilaros said. "I think we were both compelled as writers to write something."
What emerged was "Omnium Gatherum," a new off-Broadway play about a dinner party whose guests tackle issues such as the war on terrorism, American imperialism and the Middle East as they dine on haute cuisine served by their exuberant hostess.
But it is not your typical highfalutin' New York City dinner party. The play takes place after Sept. 11 somewhere between heaven and hell - an indication of the blurring distinction between life and death in the post-Sept. 11 world.
While a few plays have explored Sept. 11 as their theme, "Omnium Gatherum" is one of the first to take a comedic tack. The script is filled with barbs and zingers, and the guests are quick to offend each other. But the lively dialogue does not make light of the tragedy.
If anything, "Omnium Gatherum" sends a pretty strong message about life after Sept. 11. As director Will Frears puts it: "The world has got to make some serious changes or we're screwed."
Although Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros had known each other for years, "Omnium Gatherum" marked the first time they had written anything together. Rebeck has written several plays that have appeared off-Broadway, including "Bad Dates" and "The Butterfly Collection." Gersten-Vassilaros has split her career as a playwright and an actress, writing such works as "My Thing of Love" and "Supple in Combat."
"Omnium Gatherum" was the big hit of the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville earlier this year and made the jump to New York's Variety Arts Theatre.
The origins of the play date to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We were on the phone with each other during the catastrophe, then the phones all went out and we couldn't talk for days," Rebeck said. "And when we reconnected after 9-11 we both felt right away that we wanted to engage in it as writers."
Gersten-Vassilaros said they initially toyed with creating a "Charlie Rose show gone amok" that becomes more surreal as the show progresses - much like the images the playwrights were seeing on television after the attacks. The playwrights said they were especially troubled that Giuliani - just a month after the attacks - told people that they needed to go out and shop to help boost the economy.
The playwrights eventually settled on the dinner party setting as the best vehicle for the play's commentary about the world after Sept. 11.
"You have people arguing with each other, but they all must eat food together. 'Pass the bread, even though we hate what you represent,"' Gersten-Vassilaros said.
The dislike among the characters is not surprising when you consider the unusual guest list (omnium gatherum means "a collection of peculiar souls"): a pompous, Cambridge-educated intellectual; a flag-waving spy novelist; a female minister; a vegan feminist; and a Muslim scholar. And there's a firefighter, terrorist and Martha Stewartlike hostess, played by Kristine Nielsen. Many of the characters are loosely based on real people, including writers Tom Clancy and Christopher Hitchens and scholar Edward Said, who died Sept. 24.
The play's rapid advance from group therapy-writing sessions in the aftermath of the attacks to off-Broadway has taken the playwrights themselves by surprise. Initially, they had no lofty expectations but rather wanted something that would simply foment conversation about the world after the attacks.
The play had its first reading at the Actors Studio in early 2002. About nine months later, they got word that the Humana Festival in Louisville was interested.
"If no one was ever interested in producing it, we would have done it in people's living rooms," Rebeck said. "We sort of went from carrying it over the mountains ourselves to suddenly having a very, very powerful advocate" in the Humana Festival.
Rebeck hopes that "Omnium Gatherum" will have the same effect on New York theatergoers as it did on a 15-year-old who recently saw the play. The girl's father e-mailed Rebeck to relay the message she took from the play.
"Someone asked her what it was about, and she said, 'It's about the world and about how we all better wake up before it's too late,"' Rebeck said. "I thought that's pretty good."