Dripping with multicultural goodwill and quivering with righteous anger, “The Gate of Heaven” is an interesting subject in search of a playwright. Tracing the 50-year-long friendship between a Holocaust survivor and his Japanese-American rescuer, the play has the opportunity to ask all manner of important questions: Who is an American? What price patriotism? What cost honor? But all “The Gate of Heaven” finally manages to do is sermonize on How to Be a Good Person. Unless you count sentimentality, there isn’t a human emotion in sight.
Both Lane Nishikawa and Victor Talmadge turn in occasionally impressive performances, but the material they have created is shapeless (unless you count the march of time as structure) and characterless (unless you count the very ethnic stereotypes the play argues against).
The play opens when Sam, the American son of Japanese immigrants, saves the life of Leon, a German Jew, as the 442nd Regiment (this Japanese-American unit was the most highly decorated in American history) liberates Dachau. Story follows them through their growing friendship as Sam teaches Leon judo, as Leon teaches Sam how to bar mitzvah his son, as they deal with the grief when that son is killed in Vietnam, and as various nightmares and repressed episodes are shared.
As they age and their dialogue gets clunkier, they seem to be getting stupider or else, illogically, to know each other less rather than more as time goes by. This in addition to other lapses in logic: Could someone living in San Francisco for 20 years (and whose best friend is Japanese) actually not know what sushi is? How come Leon discovers only when it is convenient for the play’s speechifying that Sam’s parents-in-law were interned in the U.S. camps? Why do the characters’ accents come and go?
Accompanying all the verbal clichs are visual ones: Slides projected on a screen above the action show famous dates and all-too familiar images (the Kennedy assassination, the Six-Day War, the Vietnam War, the Bicentennial) or else enlarge exactly what we’re seeing on the stage (a candle burning, a Passover seder plate). This Hallmark card effect (a slide for every occasion) underscoresthe reduction of big ideas into tidy, sociologically fashionable cubbyholes.