It’s easy enough to see what attracted stage and screen veteran Theodore Bikel to “The Gathering,” a new play by Arje Shaw that’s enjoying a successful extended run at the Jewish Repertory Theater. In act one, playing a mildly cantankerous Jewish grandpa, he gets all the funny lines, dispatching them with split-second timing in a low, rich rumble that gently squeezes every drop of humor from them. In act two, he gets to declaim and rage with impressive grandiloquence against those who would seek to bury the horrors of the Holocaust in the history books. For a finale, he finishes up with the revelation of secret reservoirs of suffering.
It’s an irresistible role for an actor, equal parts curmudgeonly warmth, noble outrage and bottomless suffering, and Bikel digs into it with the relish of a man who knows just how lucky he is. With his scrupulously honest technique, Bikel brings a good measure of dignity to the play, but he cannot disguise its formulaic nature and its emotional manipulations. One sometimes wishes the Holocaust could be declared off limits to all but the greatest artists; there’s something unseemly about its being used, as it too often is, for the kind of superficial emotional wallow that Shaw’s play offers up.
The play’s central conflict is somewhat laboriously set up in act one, as Gabriel Stern (Bikel) and his grandson Michael (Adam Rose) banter genially over Michael’s upcoming bar mitzvah. We learn that Gabe is a survivor of the death camps, and that his son, Michael’s dad Stuart (Robert Fass), is a speechwriter for President Reagan who’s consumed by his new job (“He doesn’t have time for me ,” as Michael bluntly puts it). Shaw draws Gabe’s character most deeply and amusingly, and Bikel slides out his wisecracks with a blessedly natural ease: “I was a Communist; I raised a Republican. You figure it out!”
At Sabbath dinner, after endless conflict between Stuart and his shiksa convert wife Diane (Susan Warrick Hasho) over the details of the bar mitzvah, it’s revealed that Stuart’s new assignment is to accompany Reagan to Bitburg, Germany. The president is scheduled to speak at a cemetery for German troops that, as the indignant Gabe well knows, also contains graves of the infamous SS. “I didn’t survive the camps to forgive and forget!” cries Gabe, in the opening salvo of what will soon turn into a ponderous debate.
The second act takes place in the Bitburg cemetery, where Gabe is staging his own personal protest, accompanied by Michael. Stuart and Diane arrive to take them both home, and, with a German soldier (Peter Hermann) conveniently on hand to give him his cues, Gabe delivers a series of impassioned speeches about the importance of never forgetting, the disgrace of contemporary Germans who smooth over their country’s culpability and his own terrible guilt.
Stuart and the German soldier occasionally interrupt with leading questions. “Did you survive so you could pass on your bitterness?” asks the enraged and embarrassed Stuart. “My grandfather hated Jews like you hate Germans; when does it stop?” asks the soldier. But Gabe has plenty of his own: “What right do I have to live when so many died?” “How can you people live with yourselves?”
As may be seen, there is nothing new in these microwaved moral debates; in the hands of lesser writers, such emotionally loaded questions turn into cliches. For all Bikel’s talents, he cannot artfully humanize Gabe’s superhuman load of self-righteousness and grief — Shaw’s writing for the character is too heavily laced with familiar Holocaust-drama rhetoric.
By the end of the play, when we’ve learned the terrible details of Gabe’s Holocaust experience, the sniffles in the audience duly arise, but they’re push-button tears. It’s just this kind of unsatisfactory artistic treatment that can cause people to complain that the Holocaust is a “tired” subject. And that, of course, is dangerous.