When I was a lad in the '50s, you could always tell when the rabbi had not had enough time to prepare his sermon. At a certain point he would switch topics to "the Six Million," then the term for what is now called the Holocaust. Mere mention of "the Six Million" could be counted on to give listeners the needed jolt. In those days, had you used the term "Holocaust," people would have assumed you were a biblical scholar using a technical term for animal sacrifices. Since "Holocaust" now creates almost as knee-jerk a response as "the Six Million," perhaps the time has come to call a moratorium on Holocaust plays, like "The Gathering."
Arje Shaw's play starts on a cute level with Hal Linden playing an elderly Jew, Gabe, sculpting a bust of Muhammad Ali. He and his grandson, Michael (played by the talented 12-year-old Max Dworin), are chattering away about all sorts of topics as Michael prepares for his bar mitzvah. The year is 1985. Gabe's son, Stuart (Michael's father), is a speechwriter for President Reagan. During the Sabbath dinner that follows, which is already full of tension because Stuart is being so picky about the bar-mitzvah preparations, full-blown warfare breaks out between Gabe and Stuart over the fact that Reagan is going to visit the German cemetery at Bitburg. A number of S.S. officers are buried there, and the world Jewish community was outraged at Reagan's visit. Gabe, a Dachau survivor, is similarly galled. Borscht Belt coziness suddenly gives way to acrimony. The second act takes place in the Bitburg cemetery, to which Gabe has, improbably, brought Michael. The two of them, wearing prayer shawls, wait to confront Reagan and his entourage. Stuart and his wife arrive. The play then descends to the level of a family-recrimination drama of the '50s. Gabe also berates a 24-year-old German soldier who has been delegated to remove them. After a succession of "revelations" about the past, the soldier points out how hate-filled Gabe is. Shaken out of his complacency, Gabe agrees. The play ends on a muted note of reconciliation. Given the limitations of the writing, which is at its best with caustic humor, the actors, under the direction of Rebecca Taylor, do very well. As Gabe, Linden has a sweetness that almost makes us overlook the character's smugness. He can handle lines like "Two Alka-Seltzer, two Tylenol - that's what I call a Jewish boilermaker" with aplomb. He and young Dworin play off one another very smoothly. Deirdre Lovejoy is very strong as Michael's mother, an Irish woman who converted. As Stuart, Sam Guncler skillfully conveys a man at the boiling point. Coleman Zeigen has impressive dignity as the soldier. The show has been well designed, though the drama is too trivial to fill so large a stage. As plot, "The Gathering" stretches credulity, and its ideas are hardly fresh - even the notion that young Germans cannot be held accountable for their grandparents' sins. It all falls under the heading of preaching to the choir, which is why I am proposing a moratorium on such plays. They do not increase understanding. They only dull us to the still unfathomable horror of what happened in Europe.
It is not easy to write about Arje Shaw's play "The Gathering," which opened at the Cort Theatre last night, because it's a play that - possibly as much by chance as design - has a targeted audience.
It is a play about a Holocaust survivor and his very understandable difficulty in coming to terms with both his horrendous past and contemporary Germany. This, with all due respect, is a cliche encased in a tragedy.
Yet the play, which enjoyed an earlier life off-Broadway at the Jewish Repertory Theatre, starts as a stereotypical Jewish comedy - with the survivor Gabe, his grandson, a Bar Mitzvah boy, his son, a White House speechwriter, and his daughter-in-law, an Irish Catholic convert, more Jewishly correct than any of them.
Now while Shaw never fully abandons the comic, ironic tone of the opening, he clearly has more serious matters in mind.
He takes as his peg President Ronald Reagan's decision in 1985, as a diplomatic gesture to West Germany and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, to visit Bitburg Cemetery, where some members of Hitler's SS troops were buried.
Gabe himself is more than just incensed - he springs into action and abducts his willing grandson, hauling him over to Bitburg in an attempt to make a protest before the hopefully chagrined figures of Reagan and Kohl. A likely tale.
Once in the cemetery, Gabe introduces the boy to the joys of Scotch whisky, interspersed with more dollops of Jewish wisdom. Not only do Gabe's frantic son and daughter-in-law arrive to claim their child, but a young German officer turns up to escort everyone from the graveyard, and, of course, to put the case for compassion if not forgiveness for the new Germany.
When I first saw it at the Jewish Repertory, Gabe's cantankerous eloquence had a large part the audience quietly sobbing, and indeed on Broadway there were more than a few surreptitious hands brushing eyelids.
This is what I meant by a targeted audience - it needs an audience capable of actual sympathy rather than mere empathy. They will be people who instinctively understand Gabe rather than his son.
The Yiddish humor is well enough done in an unduly old-fashioned and conventional manner, but the staging is too monumental for the domestic scenes and too bare for the monumental scenes.
On the other hand - and what would a Jewish play be without the other hand - the cast, directed by Rebecca Taylor, is mostly very good, smoothly idiomatic, and capable of bringing a touch of originality to the expected.
Linden, more gentle than Theodore Bikel, his fire-eating predecessor off-Broadway, is a delight, and his relationship with his grandson Michael, a bright and sprightly Max Dworin, provides a special pleasure and welcome credibility.
Perhaps Sam Guncler makes the speechwriter even more pompously unpleasant than does the playwright, and Coleman Zeigen as the "good" German officer appears a little stilted, possibly as intended.
However, the talented Deirdre Lovejoy incisively breaks out of the mold of the ardent shiksa convert, providing the play with a tart twist of difference.
''The Gathering'' by Arje Shaw isn't a terribly good play, but it is an affecting sermon. The issue is forgiveness, the lesson is that the endless harboring of anger and resentment -- even over the egregious cruelties of the Holocaust -- is a soul-warping endeavor, and the message is that, for their own good as well as the world's, it is time for Jewish survivors to let go of their vengefulness and allow the healing to begin.
In spite of a disingenuous advertising claim, the play, which opened yesterday at the Cort Theater, isn't new; it had a production off Broadway in 1999. Set in 1985, it begins in New York and concludes in what was then West Germany, at the military cemetery in Bitburg, on the day of President Ronald Reagan's controversial visit. (To refresh the memory: In the interest of promoting harmony between the two nations on the 40th anniversary of the German surrender in World War II, Mr. Reagan attended a ceremony in Bitburg, where the cemetery has the remains of German veterans, including a few dozen members of the Nazi SS.)
And that is the frame of a preposterous plot -- unless you find it reasonable that a Holocaust survivor, his family and a young German soldier could air their grievances while the leaders of two nations (the West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, accompanied Mr. Reagan) courteously cooled their heels to let them finish. Nonetheless, with a crustily avuncular Hal Linden milking the central role of Gabe -- a survivor who masks his lingering fury and grief in wiseguy, rebellious wit -- the production does achieve an earnest pedagogy.
In the final scene, which is mostly a fierce debate between Gabe and Egon (Coleman Zeigen), the polite German soldier who has his own poignant Holocaust issues to work out, what is at stake is the moral high ground. The two men cover the waterfront pretty well and pretty movingly: Why should the unforgivable be forgiven? Are children responsible for the sins of their fathers?
But even if it's phony as drama, the tug of war is passionate, and they come to a well-earned truce. In fact, it is evident that all the rigmarole that preceded it was contrived to get to this point. Indeed, this is the kind of play that prizes circumstance and even a one-liner more than character. Gabe is a lovable old coot, a former Communist and an atheist as a result of the Holocaust.
He's a sculptor whose liberal, renegade pedigree is established from the start, when he is seen needing a haircut and working on a bust of Muhammad Ali. But that he's an artist never informs his character; it's basically forgotten after the first minutes of the play. And we're supposed to believe he actually voted for Mr. Reagan, a throwaway reference that sacrifices credibility merely to be the setup line for a not very clever wisecrack.
A jokester, a lover of irony, Gabe is the kind of cool grandfather who plays chess with his relentlessly cute, programmatically precocious grandson, Michael (Max Dworin) -- they compete maniacally -- when he's supposed to be helping him prepare for his bar mitzvah. Indeed, he's a bit of a child himself; the Broadway show that has Nazis and flatulence in it isn't ''The Producers.'' And he's the kind of father whose son, Stuart, is instinctively annoyed by him.
Stuart (Sam Guncler) is a work-obsessed yuppie whose new job as a speechwriter for President Reagan keeps him in Washington all week and in a self-important shell even at home. As written and performed, he's a complete and utter jerk without the slightest redeeming nuance; he thinks the bar mitzvah is not for Michael but an occasion for him to show off to his important new colleagues.
Much is made of swan-shaped ice sculptures. The only household member of any real depth is Stuart's wife, Diane, and that's largely because of a fetching performance by Deirdre Lovejoy, who is more or less ignored after intermission. A gentile who converted to Judaism, Diane is, predictably, the most devoted Jew in the family; she reveres the spirituality and the rituals and she makes a great kreplach but has no sense of tribal belonging.
In any case, it's a Sabbath dinner she prepares that provides the setting for the family implosion; in midmeal Stuart gets a phone call from Washington -- it's from Pat Buchanan -- informing him of the Bitburg trip, which sends Gabe into a paroxysm of despair at his memories and rage at being betrayed by his son. In response, taking Michael with him (unbeknown to his parents), he goes to Bitburg where, in protest of the presidential visit, they enact a bar mitzvah ceremony in the graveyard. Egon's entrance is ostensibly to clear the area of visitors before the start of the internationally important event.
So it's a tortured and tortuous route that brings us to the position paper at the heart of ''The Gathering,'' and you have to travel it to get to the reasonably good stuff. And, alas, there is an element in the final scene -- Gabe's weepy spilling of the secrets he's carried since the war -- that slathers enough schmaltz on the goings-on for a loaf of rye bread. In the end, the child is grandfather to the man, and the family is on its way to suturing its wounds. It's a lot to ask of an audience, if not a congregation; but as a playwright, Mr. Shaw makes a pretty good rabbi.
The sobs and sniffles arrive on cue at the Cort Theater in the last moments of "The Gathering," Arje Shaw's play about a Holocaust survivor's reckoning with the past. The play was first seen in New York two seasons back at the Jewish Rep, where its shticky comedy and sticky emotion were appreciated by audiences susceptible to even the most ham-fisted treatments of such inflammatory material.
Now on Broadway as a vehicle for Hal Linden, who gives a performance of such effusive ethnicity as to make Jackie Mason seem like Julie Andrews, the play will once again be embraced by audiences with a strong sympathy for the material. It's not likely to move beyond that core audience, however; the play's approach to questions of collective German guilt over the Holocaust and its treatment of the importance of remembering the past are neither subtle nor artful nor fresh.
Linden plays Gabe, a sculptor who is first seen dispensing punchlines and advice to his soon-to-be bar mitzvahed grandson Michael, played by Max Dworin, with an emphatic energy that's a bit scary. In the second scene we meet Gabe's son, Michael's absentee dad, Stuart (Sam Guncler, soldiering on in a thankless role), whose obsession with his job as a speechwriter for President Reagan (the year is 1985) causes lots of tension at the Shabbes dinner cooked by his converted wife, Diane (Deirdre Lovejoy).
Things come to a head at the first act curtain, when it's revealed that Stuart is required to write a speech for Reagan's infamous trip to Bitburg, West Germany, where German soldiers -- including some members of the reviled SS -- were buried. At this point, Gabe switches instantly from being the family's resident Catskills comic to its moral conscience, thundering recriminations at Stuart, whom he accuses of moral blindness. "A Jew without a past is not a Jew!" he cries. "I didn't survive the camps to forgive and forget!"
Gabe's grandiloquent moral grandstanding really takes off in act two, as the entire family flits over to Bitburg. Gabe has "kidnapped" Michael and plans a protest during Reagan's visit to the cemetery; Stuart and Deirdre arrive just in time to provide an audience -- literally, in Rebecca Taylor's stiff staging -- for Gabe's fervid confrontation with a very Aryan-looking soldier guarding the cemetery (Coleman Zeigen). He apparently has nothing better to do than square off with Gabe over the culpability of the general German populace -- and all their descendants -- in the Nazi atrocities.
No prizes for guessing who has the moral upper hand here, but the distasteful truth is that Gabe's tormenting of this well-mannered young fellow ("Go on arrest me Mr. Gestapo, arrest me!" "Ever seen a Jew before? I mean a Jew who's not afraid?"), not to mention his son ("You're a disgrace to your own son!"), daughter-in-law ("You think you become a Jew by making Shabbes, say a few prayers, marry a Jew! ... You will never know what it is to be a Jew!"), and even beloved grandson ("Come here, Michael: Write 'All Germans Are Nazis' ") is so shrill, unmodulated and unpleasant that the character threatens to morph into an anti-Semitic stereotype, a prime piece of propaganda for accusations that the Holocaust has come to be exploited for cheap emotional blackmail. (The play could be brought up on similar charges, actually.)
Can it be that Shaw wants us to see Gabe as monstrous, irrevocably warped by suffering? I suspect not; the character is provided with a tragedy in his past -- merely surviving the death camps was presumably not enough -- so terrible as to give him carte blanche for all bad behavior.
His tragedy duly wrings tears from the eyes of the more easily emotionally manipulated members of the audience, who are clearly moved by the character's suffering and his righteousness, however glibly and shrilly it is conveyed. But the play's lack of subtlety and complexity is emphasized by the ferocious -- dare I say shameless? -- intensity of Linden's performance, which is considerably less nuanced than Theodore Bikel's in the Jewish Rep staging.
Also unattractive is the physical production, with Michael Anania's sets for the New York scenes overpowered by massive moving screens painted to resemble marble, making it appear that both Gabe and his son's family reside in the lobbies of multinational corporations. The move to the cemetery comes as a breath of fresh air -- until the characters start talking, that is, when things get stale very quickly.