Plays about dinner parties appear to be in vogue in this area nowadays. Olney Theatre Center is serving up a gourmet meal nightly in the apocalyptic Omnium Gatherum, and on a smaller scale, the Vagabond Players has set the table for Neil Simon's 2000 comedy The Dinner Party.
The setting - a private dining room in a chic Paris restaurant - is something of an oddity for Simon, and the Vagabonds' elegantly detailed set, designed and built by Tony Colavito, is a piece de resistance.
But the play itself is less satisfying. The contrived plot concerns five guests invited to a dinner party. The host, a divorce lawyer, is absent, and the occasion for the party is puzzling. "I think that's what the party's about - to find out what the party's about," says one of the guests.
That's essentially what the play's about, too. Without giving too much away, it's safe to say that all of the diners are divorced, and one of them believes it's never too late to rectify the mistakes of the past.
Director Barry Feinstein has assembled a largely adept cast whose standouts include Laura Rose as an amusingly indecisive scatterbrain; Katherine Lyons as a chilly femme fatale; and Michael O'Connell as a rude, rich snob whose blood runs even colder than that of Lyons' character.
"I'm leaving before this turns into a farce," another character says at one point. Despite the requisite slamming doors, however, The Dinner Party never achieves full farce proportions; nor, despite the element of suspense, does it ever turn into a truly involving mystery.
In the end, this Dinner Party is neither fish nor fowl. Think of it as nouvelle Simon - a bittersweet reduction of love, marriage and divorce.
Showtimes at the Vagabond, 806 S. Broadway, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 15. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 410-563-9135.
Young writers' plays
Five plays by Maryland students will be given professional staged readings at Center Stage's 19th annual Young Playwrights Festival at 7 p.m. Monday. Selected from the work of 243 students, the plays are:
Why Palm Trees Have Coconuts, by Lizzie Smith (second grade, Bryn Mawr School), about a palm tree that comes to the rescue of three Toucans.
Solar Sisters Save the Universe, by Dylan Balter and Hanna Pearl Lau (second grade, Midtown Academy), in which the planets attempt to discover why the solar system's climates are out of whack.
Johnny and the Dust Bunnies, by Andrea Merchak (sixth grade, Harford Day School), about a boy who fears dust bunnies are coming to get him.
Admissions Statement, by Emily Pueschel (12th grade, Eastern Technical High School), in which the unexpected occurs when a pupil applies for a new student ID.
Wholesale Candidate (David Kongstvedt, 11th grade, The Field School), about robot politicians that take on human characteristics.
Monday's program will take place at the theater, 700 N. Calvert St., and will also honor three students whose plays receive workshops in their schools as well as four honorable mention recipients. WJZ anchor Denise Koch will emcee the event, which is free, but reservations are required. Call 410-332-0033.
In other Center Stage news, the theater has received a $15,000 Arts Connect All grant to allow hearing-impaired students to participate in its after-school Encounter program. Awarded by VSA arts, a nonprofit organization, and MetLife Foundation, the grant will enable the theater to provide a sign-language interpreter for next season's Encounter sessions. In addition, frequent Center Stage actor Warren "Wawa" Snipe will design and lead several sessions, and Quest: arts for everyone, a Lanham-based deaf performance ensemble, will join the list of Encounter guest artists.
Award for excellence
Tony Award-winning set designer Ming Cho Lee is the first recipient of the new Stephen and Christine Schwarzman Award for Excellence in Theater, to be presented tomorrow as part of the Kennedy Center's American College Theater Festival in Washington.
The award - $10,000 to Lee and $10,000 in scholarships to the student of his choice - honors lifetime achievement and a commitment to teaching. Lee has been on the faculty of the Yale School of Drama for 37 years. His area credits include Washington's Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre.