Creating dramatic art from the ashes of the Holocaust remains an iffy task, fraught with the perils of reducing a subject of enormous scope and agony to a cookie-cutter formula. Playwright Arje Shaw falls into every single pitfall with “The Gathering,” a flimsily constructed piece that finds solid support in Hal Linden’s able portrayal of a survivor forced to confront the past. The play originated at the Jewish Rep in New York, and this production is scheduled to open on Broadway in April. With its heartfelt core that evokes a sense of infinite loss, the play is perfectly capable of drawing tears from the right crowd. But “The Gathering” also is a shamelessly sappy piece that generates its fitful power less from its narrative cliches than from the subject it exploits. While there’s certainly an audience for this — an older, Jewish, suburban demographic that keeps the theater alive during its darker days — the play’s commercial potential likely will be limited by its severe lack of artistic merit.
Shaw is a Holocaust survivor who came to America from a displaced persons camp in Bergen Belsen when he was 8 years old. His biography also revealingly informs us that he has a graduate degree in social work.
A sympathetic sensibility permeates the play. In the first act, we’re introduced to the aging Gabe (Linden), who is helping to prepare his precocious grandson Michael (Adam Rose) for his bar mitzvah in between working on a bust of Muhammad Ali, one of Gabe’s heroes. The relationship between the old and the young glows with a transparent idealism, with the 12-year-old reveling in his grandfather’s every tale and the two joking and tenderly teasing each other.
The second scene moves to the home of Michael’s parents, Gabe’s son Stuart (Sam Guncler) and daughter-in-law Diane (Deirdre Lovejoy), for Shabbas dinner. The year is 1985, and Stuart recently has gone to work as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. When Stuart informs Gabe that Reagan is going to Bitburg, a German cemetery that’s home to Nazi SS corpses as well as others, Gabe explodes with anger.
As an act of rebellion, both against Reagan and his own son, Gabe takes Michael to Bitburg, hoping to give him a more meaningful bar mitzvah than anyone had imagined. The entire second act takes place in the cemetery, as Stuart and Diane try to coax Gabe away from the scene so Reagan and Chancellor Kohl can make their visit without too much fuss.
The second act is not only a blatant contrivance, it’s an even more obvious act of deflection. Shaw isn’t really interested in the politics of Reagan’s visit — the most painfully bad parts of this play involve Gabe’s ridiculously stilted debate with a German soldier named Egon (Coleman Zeigen), who’s there to present the contemporary German sense of collective guilt. Shaw uses the setup primarily as a means to open up old family wounds, and the play devolves rapidly into a domestic quarrel between Stuart and Gabe, who, of course, is holding back a piece of personal history he’s ashamed of, a twist that’s becoming all too common in Holocaust drama.
In the end, Shaw doesn’t reduce the Holocaust so much as he reduces the theater and its possibilities. This is a work with a cardboard vision of what a play is: Make the audience laugh in Act One. Then, before intermission, throw in an issue debate so the audience has something to talk about. And finally, under this definition the very essence of the theatrical experience, make the audience weep by miring them in psychological schmaltz. The implication is that whatever complex political, religious and historical issues are at stake, they can all be resolved with a good cry. For far better treatments on similar issues, one could turn to plays like the morally challenging “Ghetto” by Joshua Sobol or the underrated, cleverly crafted “Lebensraum” by Israel Horovitz.
Linden is eminently capable here, making the sharp tonal shifts happen as shamelessly as possible. His comic timing is — not surprisingly — particularly strong. Young Adam Rose manages to keep pace. The rest of the cast is fine, but as written the characters are way too forced to provide much for an actor to work with.
The set, which according to the credits has a concept and an adapter but no designer, is uninteresting and a touch amateurish. The sound design in the large Wadsworth, making use of amplification, gives the playing a feel of distance, as if we’re watching it on television, where such canned sentimentality is expected.