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The Gathering 1999 Off-Broadway Production
Arje Shaw's play The Gathering, centers on a Jewish family -- the father a Holocaust survivor, his son a speech writer for President Ronald Reagan (his immediate boss, Pat Buchanan), a grandson about to celebrate his bar mitzvah. The dramatic trigger point exploding the uneasy father-son relationship is Reagan's planned visit to Germany's Bitburg Cemetery the last resting place not only of ordinary German soldiers but some notorious Nazis. The 1985 visit was a public relations ploy to help Helmut Kohl get reelected as Chancellor.
The day after the play opened at the Jewish Repertory Theater, The chief Rabbi of Poland, a Holocaust survivor, confronted Pope John Paul II in Warsaw demanding the removal of a large cross at the walls of Auschwitz. The interchange in which the Rabbi addressed the Pope as "Mr. Pope" was televised live, shocking many Polish viewers and resurrected a painful issue that Catholic ad Jewish leaders in Poland had hoped to smooth over during the papal visit.
The incident was an unexpected reminder that despite the Pope's plea for unity and understanding, the wounds of World War II fester. Given the premise of The Gathering it also smacked of life imitating art. The uneasy relationship between the play's two central characters, father (Theodore Bikel) and son (Robert Fass), explodes when Gabe (Bikel) learns about Reagan's proposed visit to Bitburg.
Bikel's abrasive and volatile Gabe marks a sharp departure from the lovable stage personality of his best known character, Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof. Like the real life Polish rabbi he refuses to see Germans generally and this visit in particular in any colors other than black and white. His son's willingness to accept this politics as usual situation as part of his job is totally unacceptable.
Being the fine actor he is, Mr. Bikel makes the most of the Tevye-like humor and warmth Mr. Shaw has provided at least for the first act and especially in some of the scenes with his young grandson (endearingly played by Jesse Adam Eisenberg). He also manages to engage our emotions during the melodramatic but, alas, unconvincing finale. However, neither Bikel or the capable supporting cast can make art out of what is essentially a cliche ridden polemic masquerading as a powerful family drama. Mr. Shaw, whose own father escaped from Poland in 1939 but without his mother and sister, has used the historic and justifiably rankling Bitburg event to air a melange of other issues -- religious rites of passage that have metamorphosed into showy parties, intermarriage, survivor guilt and forgiveness. By trying to say it all, he hobbles his characters, making them mouthpieces rather than flesh and blood, memorable individuals.
In his best selling novel The Reader author Bernhard Schlink also focuses on the hard to heal wounds of World War II. He succeeds, as Shaw does not, in weaving together the complex threads of the awakening of a young boy's sexuality and social consciousness. Instead of hammering us on the head with polemics, he tells his story simply and suspensefully. By contrast, Mr. Shaw, puts forth his ideas with a two by four, as if afraid we couldn't possibly "get it".
It begins in Gabe's New York apartment and studio (he's a sculptor currently working on a head of Muhammed Ali whom he great admires) and moves on to Friday night sabbath at his son's house. The Bar Mitzvah boy and his mother (Susan Warrick Hasho), a convert to Judaism, are caught between the father and son whose surface disagreement about the decorations and theme of the forthcoming Bar Mitzvah is a set up to bowl you over with surprise when the roots of the tension are revealed. The second act takes us to Bitburg where grandpa has brought his beloved boychick for quite a different Haf Torah reading. At this point the dramatic arc heats up only to become entangled in yet another debate, this one with a young German (Peter Hermann doing his utmost to represent the entire universe of young Germans).
As one woman I overheard at the end of the play said, "He had me shed a few tears, but I expected to see a play, not a lecture." That other Jewish patriarch Tevye couldn't have summed it up better.