A play about the Holocaust, The Gathering served its niche audience at the Jewish Rep; but there was nothing in this production that suggested, either critically or commercially, that it would be viable on Broadway. Yet here it is at the Cort Theatre with Hal Linden as its star. The play is no better than it was before, and Linden, while entertaining and effective, doesn't bring quite the same degree of gravitas as Bikel did to the central role. In the words of Christine Lavin, "What were they thinking?"
Linden's character here is Gabe, a loveable old grandpa who plays chess with his grandson, Michael (Max Dworin), calling him his boychick and kibbitzing with him about his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. We're not 10 minutes into the play and they're discussing kreplach. Such kvelling you haven't heard since you visited your Aunt Rose in Boca! (You get the idea.) But Gabe is also a Holocaust survivor, so it isn't long before shtick and shtetl attempt to merge. Sometimes the dark and ironic Jewish humor deftly underlines the play's pathos, sometimes not. Playwright Arje Shaw tries to amuse us on our way to tears because, after all, there must be tears at the end of a such a work. It's hard not to cry at a Holocaust play; but such a play has to earn its tears, and The Gathering does not do so.
The action of the play is set in 1985. We meet Gabe in his apartment, where he is sculpting a bust of Muhammed Ali. Because he has no one else to talk to--and he needs to give the audience a lot of information in a short period of time--he talks to Ali. (We would float like a butterfly to avoid such hoary exposition, which stings like a bee.) Once Michael shows up at Gabe's apartment, familial humor takes hold and Linden's comic gifts begin to pay off. The play anchors itself upon the last scene of the first act, wherein Gabe's son, Stuart (Sam Guncler), comes home for Shabbas dinner from his new job in Washington as a speechwriter for President Reagan. Stuart drops the bombshell that Reagan is traveling to Bitburg, West Germany, to honor the enemy dead at a cemetery where Nazi storm troopers are also buried. Gabe, who has spent the last 40 years trying to forget the past, explodes in outrage and demands that his son do something to stop this damnable tribute. But Stuart refuses. He won't risk his job over the issue, nor does he understand his father's reaction. To Stuart, it's just politics; to Gabe, it's a mockery of the six million dead.
Okay. That's a good conflict, with intellectual and emotional elements that are worth exploring. So, let the drama play out. The last thing you'd expect (unless you saw the show Off-Broadway) would be a grandstand play (pun intended) in which Gabe and Michael head off to Bitburg, yarmulkes and tallises in hand. The playwright and the director, Rebecca Taylor, create something that seems like a Grade-B TV movie as Gabe and Michael strut around the Bitburg cemetery in protest.
In order for this bit of nonsense to work, we have to believe that Gabe would, in essence, kidnap his own grandson and take him to Germany. We also have to believe the wildly improbable dialogue between Gabe and a young German soldier assigned security detail for the upcoming presidential visit to the cemetery. It's downright embarrassing--not to mention completely unrealistic--for Gabe, whom we saw in the first act to be a reasonable man, to insist in front of the German soldier that "All Germans are Nazis." Shaw puts words into the character's mouth only because they're necessary for the plot; there are surprise revelations and twists, but no payoff at the end. After so many Holocaust books, movies, and plays, the best of the new entries in this genre are subtle and/or indirect (like Roberto Begnini's Life is Beautiful).
If The Gathering doesn't work, most of the actors do. Linden may not be Theodore Bikel, but he successfully holds the stage as Gabe. Dierdre Lovejoy plays Gabe's daughter-in-law, an Irish-Catholic wife who converted to Judaism, with admirable restraint. Max Dworin carries much of the burden of the show as the nearly 13-year-old Michael; it's a mannered performance, which doesn't help in his scenes with Linden, but we've seen worse child actors. Sam Guncler as Stuart is good enough to get away with a very schmaltzy moment at the end of the show. Then there's poor Coleman Zeigen as Egon, the German soldier; he's stuck with some pretty lame material, so let's give him a pass. But we can't be so forgiving of Taylor's plodding direction, nor of Michael Anania's fake-looking set design for the second act.