Three days after seeing The Gathering, one question remains in my mind: Why would a Holocaust survivor full of anger and hate say a prayer of mourning at a German cemetery? The Gathering does not offer a plausible explanation for this act, and instead lets it pass without even acknowledging the irony. This is just one of several unlikely events about which the audience is required to suspend disbelief in order for The Gathering to work.
There are two plotlines competing for attention in The Gathering. The first is a play about a family: Gabe, the grandfather (Hal Linden) prepares Michael, his grandson (Adam Rose) for his Bar-Mitzvah. Michael's parents are well-to-do assimilated Jews, arguing over what sort of ice sculpture to have at the Bar-Mitzvah. Michael's father, Stuart (Sam Guncler) works for then-President Reagan, and the play gets moving when Reagan plans a visit to a German cemetery at Bitberg. Gabe is a Holocaust survivor, and he finds it intolerable that the President would visit a cemetery where German soldiers are buried. A conflict arises for Stuart; should he be loyal to his family and his people, or should he be loyal to his job? What responsibilities does he inherit as the son of a survivor, and the father of a boy searching for his own place in the Jewish community?
These questions do not really get answered, as they run up against the second plotline, which is a two-man play comprised of a philosophical discussion between Gabe and Egon (Coleman Zeigen), a young German trying to come to terms with the legacy of the Second World War. To what extent should the current generation of Germans feel guilty for what their forefathers did? Do Jews feel any level of responsibility for what happened in the Holocaust? How should Jews teach their children to think about Germans now? How should Germans teach their children to think about their ancestors who took part in the Holocaust, or those who just stood by and let it happen?
These questions are worthy of discussion, and they get a decent airing in The Gathering. The circumstances of the discussion, however, are highly improbable. When Gabe and Egon come together at Gabe's protest in Bitberg, Egon has a very clear motivation--he has to convince Gabe to leave the cemetery as soon as possible, before the politicians arrive. This is no time for Egon to start quizzing Gabe on his feelings as a survivor, but he does, and the dialogue that is the real point of The Gathering gets moving under unlikely circumstances.
More improbable occurrences are necessary to resolve the play, as the plotlines interweave. The Gathering ultimately resolves, but not without an obligatory tearful scene in which Stuart reveals a secret about his past, and Gabe reveals a bigger one. It induces sniffles and sobs in the audience, but the emotional response is not well-deserved. Playwright Arje Shaw makes the audience choke up by bringing in a last minute tear-jerker, not from anything inherent in the play he has crafted.
Hal Linden gives an excellent performance as Gabe, equally convincing in the light comic scenes with his family and the more dramatic moments with Egon. Coleman Zeigen's Egon is also very effective. He successfully conveys his pain at being on the receiving end of Gabe's insults without ever losing his even stance or temper. Dierdre Lovejoy, as Michael's mother Diane, is easily believable as a woman who converted to Judaism and has taken responsibility for her family's day-to-day Jewish life. Less effective is Adam Rose as Michael. Rose has good interaction with Linden, but many of his reactions appear choreographed and unnatural. Sam Guncler's Stuart is also not credible, creating more a caricature of a disinterested father than a real man. The text of the play is problematic enough, it is not helped by an uneven cast.
Rebecca Taylor's direction also detracts from the play. The bulk of the first act takes place at the family's dinner table. Taylor has placed each of the four family members on a different side of the table, with Michael sitting with his back to the audience. Not only is he facing upstage for much of the scene, but he is blocking the audience's view of Gabe, who is sitting across from him. Although Rose's reactions aren't as good as they could be, the remedy is not to hide his face from the audience.
Ultimately, there is a good deal worth seeing in The Gathering. Linden gives a quality performance, and some of the dialogue between Gabe and Egon is thought-provoking. But the play itself is somewhat disjointed, depending on contrived plot points to create an environment for its scenes, and neither the cast nor the direction is sufficient to wholly overcome the play's weaknesses.
Martin Markinson, Lawrence S. Toppall, Patricia Greenwald in association with Diaspora Productions presents The Gathering, by Arje Shaw. Scenic concept by Steven Lambert, scenic adaptation by Michael Anania, costumes by Susan Soetaert, lighting by Scott Clyve, music by Andy Stein, sound by Jeremy M. Posner and T. Richard Fitzgerald, production stage manager Dom Ruggiero, general management Roger Alan Gindi, press representatives Keith Sherman Associates. Directed by Rebecca Taylor. Originally presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre, Ran Avni-Artistic Director.
At the Wadsworth Theatre.
The Gathering closed March 1.