Like most people at a recent performance of Arje Shaw's powerful work The Gathering, I had tears in my eyes by the end of the two-hour drama. And like many around me, I suspect, I found the plight of Gabe, the Holocaust survivor at its center, imperiously heart-wrenching. All the same, I don't think The Gathering is a good play, just a deviously manipulative one.
Blessed with a compelling premise, the story takes place during a one-week period in the life of a family divided by world events as well as human-scale traumas. Michael is a thirteen-year-old boy preparing for his bar mitzvah. He is coached by his gnarly, wisecracking grandfather Gabe (played by the gnarly, wisecracking Theodore Bikel). The boy's father, Stuart, is a speechwriter for the Reagan White House; his mother, Diane, is about to embark on a Ph.D. program. As they sit down for a Shabbat dinner, Stuart gets a phone call assigning him to write the text for Reagan's comments to be delivered during his visit to the German cemetery Bitburg, containing the graves of Nazi SS soldiers. It would have been nifty if this real-life, mid-1980s controversy sparked a provocative drama, but as with most American political plays, The Gathering is less a debate than a diatribe.
"This is Bitburg," exclaims Gabe, displaying the number tattooed on his forearm, a small part of the bitter legacy of his concentration camp internment, though played here with scene-stealing histrionics.
Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove; 305-442-4000.
Written by Arje Shaw. Directed by Rebecca Taylor. With Theodore Bikel, Sam Guncler, Adam Rose, Ru Flynn-Sales, and Myk Watford. Through December 26.
Stuart defends his decision to follow orders by noting, "There are political realities." Stuart thinks his father is capable of seeing the world only as it relates to Jews. He points out that Reagan is paying a political debt to German chancellor Helmut Kohl. "Our missiles are in his country," he says.
Gabe feels personally betrayed that his son would take on such an assignment: "This is about respect for your father." And so it goes for two hours.
If these two characters sound like stand-ins for points of view, it's because they are conceived as little more than caricatures. What's worse, they exist in a universe in which people come onstage merely to deliver speeches. The play is little more than a lengthy conversation with gratuitous blocking and scenery and props thrown in to give us something to look at. Shaw's clunky exposition meanders through two acts before dropping a monstrous revelation in the third. I won't give anything away by saying that by the end of the play, we learn exactly why Gabe so cruelly boycotted Stuart's bar mitzvah some 30 years earlier and why Stuart, envious of the attention his father is giving to Michael on the eve of his coming-of-age ceremony, will forgive him. Because this choice bit of information is unwrapped without finesse, however, The Gathering never earns the highly charged response it demands from us.
Shaw, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor as well as the author of the 1992 play A Catered Affair, reportedly wrote the work to exorcise his own demons. The shortcomings of drama as psychotherapy, however, seldom are more evident. The drama is all but devoid of purposeful storytelling or organic emotional development, much less subtlety of any sort. Early in the play, we see Gabe sculpting a bust of Muhammad Ali, a skill he picked up while in the camps. Why Ali? Because, as Gabe taught Michael to parrot back, "Ali believed in himself."
As his own Ali-like gesture, Gabe takes Michael to Bitburg. He plans to give his grandson a bar mitzvah with a deeper meaning than the catered affair his parents have planned, and he wants to protest the Reagan speech. There Gabe meets Egon, the play's fifth character, a German soldier and guard at the cemetery who exists for the sole purpose of allowing Gabe to let loose his hate-filled thoughts about the German populace. Through this contrived meeting, we're supposed to note the irony inherent in Gabe's perception of Germans as one faceless evil, just as the Nazis perceived Jews. And we do.
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It begs credulity, though, that a soldier clearing an area before the arrival of world leaders would tarry long enough to talk to a cranky old man. If Shaw stretches the limits of his poetic license by allowing Gabe and the soldier to speak, he sacrifices it completely by supplying this same soldier with a father who died helping Israel win the Six-Day War. Never mind the amount of second-rate philosophizing between Gabe and Egon in which this coincidence results. A better playwright, intent on exploring the issue of who owns history, would have focused more on the character of Stuart rather than pushing him to the background. What do the living owe the dead? What do the children of Holocaust survivors owe their parents? Can a person endure great suffering and remain unprejudiced about the group who inflicts it? These questions fall by the wayside in the rush to evoke bathos.
By the point in the play when Gabe and Egon start to go at each other, I had given up hope that the dialogue was going to sift through important issues with any intelligence, and had started praying that Reagan and Kohl actually would appear on the crest of the hill upstage. No such luck. The denouement of The Gathering has all the sentimentality of the worst sort of TV sitcom, with every messy emotion tied up in a neat package before the final curtain. Although remembering the suffering of those who perished under Hitler is a duty the rest of us must carry out, it's rare that popular entertainment helps us. The urge of mediocre playwrights to make everyone feel warm and tingly before they leave the theater egregiously undercuts the dignity of Holocaust victims.
This particular production of The Gathering milks every possible opportunity for cheap emotion, in part because it stars folk music veteran and Jewish theater icon Theodore Bikel. Despite the fact that he's been given very little with which to work in this show (or in last spring's turgid The Disputation, also at the Coconut Grove Playhouse), audiences love him, and the daily-paper critics have gushed over him, as though an Austrian-born Israeli actor starring in a Holocaust drama could do no wrong. The truth is, Bikel's approach to Gabe is misguided and tiresome. If ever a role needed to be underplayed, it's this one. Equal blame goes to director Rebecca Taylor, who also directed the New York production of the play. Taylor allows Bikel to bark out every line as though he were on the vaudeville circuit, and Bikel eagerly complies. Only when he yells "Anti-Semite!" as Stuart talks on the phone with Reagan advisor and self-styled hatemonger Pat Buchanan is Bikel's over-the-top delivery justified.
Ru Flynn-Sales, Sam Guncler, and Myk Watford, who play Diane, Stuart, and Egon respectively, are not really portraying three-dimensional characters, though they do deliver their lines with intelligence and charm. The closest thing to a real human being in The Gathering is Michael, played by Adam Rose, a seventh grader at Wagner Junior High in Manhattan. I heartily agreed with a comment I overheard while standing in line at the concession stand. Two young fans remarked that he looked and acted just like the heroic Harry Potter (the children's book hero, for those of you who don't know any ten-year-olds). Although he gives a thoughtful, well-rounded, and deft performance as Michael, a better place to see Rose may be in Woody Allen's film Deconstructing Harry. In the meantime here's hoping no other playwright deconstructs the Holocaust unless he or she understands the difference between artistic inquiry and melodrama.