A new play by Arje Shaw
Directed by Rebecca Taylor
Starring Hal Linden
Cort Theatre 138 West 48th Street (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

"The Gathering" originally opened in an off-Broadway venue, the Jewish Repertory Theatre, way uptown on East 91st Street. It had a successful limited run, one that was extended, based on some good press (count my approving opinion too) and a very positive audience reaction. The play now seeks success in a larger, commercial venue, and has opened at Broadway’s Cort Theatre for what its personnel hope is an open-ended run. The cast is entirely new, the set is more extravagant (though ultimately very similar of intention and layout), the director and her approach remain essentially the same, and I would still recommend it strongly…but there has been a chemical alteration—due in part simply to the higher stakes. So saying, I follow these introductory remarks with my original review of the off-Broadway production that starred Theodore Bikel. That will be followed by the follow-up—an appraisal of the remounting that stars Hal Linden.

The 1999 Off-Broadway Review

"The Gathering" announces its artificiality up front, so boldly that in a way, it dares you to put it aside. It’s 1985 and our main character, septuagenarian Gabriel Stern (Theodore Bikel) is a sculptor, working in his New York City dining room on a bust of Muhammed Ali, a symbol of strength and defiance. Such things are important to Gabe—we know because he tells us, in an opening monologue that sets the scene and gives us most of the backstory we need. (We’ll learn in time that he’s a Holocaust survivor, but that part of his identity is so basic to what the play’s about that you know it before your fanny hits the seat—and playwright Arje Shaw doesn’t withhold it for terribly long.) The backstory being that he’s a widower and awaiting the arrival of his grandson Michael (Jesse Adam Eisenberg), for their weekly session of Haftora rehearsal (Michael’s bar-mitzvah is nearing) and chess.

As soon as Michael arrives, Gabe (called Zeydie—a variation on the Yiddish Zeyda—by his adoring grandson) stops addressing the audience and never again resumes, nor is the fourth wall broken by any characters to come. It’s as if the monologue was a Shakespearean aside appended to a contemporary play, which then continues in a sort-of naturalistic fashion. I say sort of because as the rest of the cast is introduced, you realize that the author’s name, Shaw, is a curious coincidence, because we’re about to enter the realm of Shavian dialectic, in which each character represents a different humanist perspective on a complicated issue…and in which you can’t examine the confluence too closely. That these people, with these disparate points of view would just happen to form a family is clearly an author’s conceit—

—there’s the survivor Gabe, the keeper of the flame; there’s Michael, the young, innocent generation; there’s his mother Diane (Susan Warrick Hasho), a former Irish Catholic, a convert to Judaism, whose peculiar status has her observing with one foot in the Jewish world and one in the gentile; and then there’s Stuart (Robert Fass).

Stuart is Gabe’s son, and he has just landed a prize position—speechwriter for Reagan. A politically conservative and behaviorally anal retentive fellow (as opposed to his exuberantly irreverent, liberal, Yiddishkeit-wit-spouting dad) his relationship with his father has always been somewhat strained…and it’s about to get even more so, when his next assignment is announced over a Shabbes meal. Stuart is the guy charged with writing the speech on behalf of world peace and healing that Reagan is to give at Bitburg.

West Germany.

You remember the Bitburg controversy.

Bitburg is the location of the cemetery for war veterans.

Some of them SS.

And of course, the notion that Stuart would help the President in this, would make it easier for "that putz, who served his country in Hollywood" to obscure the memory of things that were done is an outrage that Gabe finds insufferable. So much so that in Act Two, he has taken Michael on a sudden field trip—

—to the Bitburg cemetery—

—there to perform his bar mitzvah ceremony and protest the President’s actions upon his imminent arrival.

The last character in the mosaic enters here: Egon (Peter Hermann) a young German soldier, not even born during World War Two, whose job it is to clear the area before the dignitaries arrive.

What’s genuinely astonishing about "The Gathering" is how little all the artificiality matters…how willing you are, in fact, to overlook it in view of the larger things it accomplishes.

First of all, it tells a pretty good story; there are elements of mystery, unresolved threads in the relationships that are explained as the characters face each other down in this unlikely setting. Second of all, it is a Holocaust play—the first one I can think of—not about blame, anger, outrage, root causes, remembering in the sense of recreating (e.g. dramatising)—but about healing, about acknowledging that since the war, generations have passed…that for all the echoes of the old Germany, there is a new one in its place, and that accountability for the sins of the fathers is no longer as clean nor as clear as it once was. On either side of the debate.

More rewarding still, Mr. Shaw has laced much of the play, leading up to the emotional confrontations, with great humor—for all the darkness that informs the issue, these are not dark souls who play it out. They are all of them groping for the most hopeful answer they can find. And when the confrontations come, they are cathartic, primal and unusually touching.

The production, despite all this, isn’t particularly artful…or for that matter artless. Rebecca Taylor has helmed the piece in reliable, journeyman fashion. Similarly, the supporting players are solid and attractive without being transcendent. Not that the play truly requires anything much beyond proficiency and a strong leading man to bring it home.

But when its other elements are so unremarkably functional, it does tend to make "The Gathering" seem like a bit more of a star vehicle than perhaps it should. That said, however, you couldn’t get a star much better, or more authentic, than Theodore Bikel. Charisma, timing, Yiddishkeit, authority and—I can’t think of a better way of putting it—the juice are all there in abundance, and he can lay definitive claim to the role of Gabe as certainly as Cobb and Dennehy can lay claim to Willy Loman.

And when the audience cries for him, cries for his breakthrough, there’s an undeniably powerful feeling that the artificiality of the play’s architecture has merely been a catalyst for something entirely real…

…a good cry that the whole world could use…

The 2001 Broadway Review

Bottom line: you opt for Broadway, you up the ante. There’s no rule, no principle, no science, no theory to how and why what would otherwise seem like a by-the-numbers transposition should lose in the translation—all there is, all there can be, is 20-20 hindsight—but that hindsight does provide a clear view…so for what it’s worth, here it is:

The scrupulously constructed well-made play can be very satisfying and gratifying…but our sensibilities as an audience have grown more sophisticated. And the higher the ticket price, the higher the bar is raised. The artificiality of "The Gathering"—in an odd way part of its charm in a smaller theatre, where the confluence of subject matter and star made it something of a close-up event—works less to the play’s favor on Broadway. The larger house magnifies the architectural beams of the play’s structure; and renders the occasion a much more modest affair. And with a top price of $65, an affair that has a lot more to prove, in terms of its commercial worth—to its investors and its audience. And while "The Gathering" does hold up, does retain its sweetness and its heart and its ability to touch, it has lost the advantage of being an unexpected sleeper in a surprising venue.

Another thing it has lost is a bit of its professional "confidence." The no-frills functionality of director Rebecca Taylor’s production is rendered rougher-hewn on a Broadway stage—some of the second act blocking even seems a bit chaotic. And while none of this hurts the play much, it compromises the experience and de-emphasizes its strengths. Yes, "The Gathering" has a polish to its authorship that seems almost too mainstream for off-Broadway…but as a Broadway style, it hearkens to an older school, one that has been supplanted by television. For while it’s admirable and laudable that Mr. Shaw can write about serious social matters with such a canny balance of humor and pathos, Aaron Sorkin does pretty much the same thing every week on "The West Wing"—and all that costs you is the power to run your VCR and TV set.

It might be mentioned here too that the play’s second act has sustained a few minor cuts that seem less than friendly to the overall impact. Some backstory for both Egon and Gabe, that made their showdown of ideologies even hotter and more layered, has been pared away for a somewhat simpler path to the resolution. (It might be worth noting here: my companion of the evening, who had not previously seen the play, thought something related to these threads felt missing. Interesting, no?)

I’m not saying "The Gathering" is no longer a worthy theatrical experience…but I am saying that it will have a much harder time competing and surviving in its chosen marketplace.

For as long as it’s there, though, one can only wish it well. The new supporting cast—Sam Guncler nicely uptight as Stuart, Max Dworkin nicely precocious (albeit a bit too transparently "acting" when his character is supposed to be emotionally distraught) as Michael, Coleman Zeiger nicely stalwart as Egon, and Deidre Lovejoy much better than nice as Diane. And as for Mr. Linden—he is every bit the iconography of the perfect Gabe as was Mr. Bikel. Curiously—but I think inevitably too—their approach is almost identical. To be sure, there are differences in shading, in persona, in physicality…but these are both remarkably musical men, and the cadences of Yiddishkeit in Mr. Shaw’s text indicate an implicit rhythm that no old tummler worthy of the appellation can refuse to deliver. And Mr. Linden delivers in spades.

But in 2001, this play’s natural home and most powerful perch is off-Broadway. Here’s hoping that the production’s ambition doesn’t compromise the piece’s ultimate theatrical life…

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