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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 18, 1999. All rights reserved.
Off-Broadway: `The Gathering’
President Reagan’s 1985 decision to go to Bitberg,
West Germany, to visit the military cemetery where German soldiers
are buried among numerous Nazis, understandably created a stir among
American Jews and non-Jews. In Arje Shaw’s engrossing new play, "The
Gathering," as produced by the Jewish Repertory Company, the proposed
visit prompts more than a mild verbal protest from Gabe (Theodore
Bikel), a widower, and a survivor of the Holocaust and the concentration
camps. A confirmed agnostic, whose life has been normalized since
the end of World War II by a close loving family relationship and
his success as a sculptor, Gabe becomes incensed by what he considers
Reagan’s stupid insensitivity. He feels he must demonstrate his avowed
disapproval by going to the site at the same time as Reagan.
At a Sabbath dinner, he becomes infuriated by the forgive-and-forget
response expressed by his conservative son, Stuart (Robert Fass),
who has just landed a prestigious job as a White House speechwriter.
Yet Gabe succeeds in gaining the support and understanding of his
grandson, Michael (Jesse Adam Eisenberg), who is soon to have his
bar mitzvah. Gabe is Michael’s chess partner and listens to him recite
Gabe’s mission to Germany will include Michael’s participation, but
without parental approval. The young man bravely accompanies his grandfather.
In the process he tries to understand his grandfather’s strong and
stirring feelings and also tries to comprehend as best as he can the
paradoxical issues created by his own parents’ opposing attitudes.
Headstrong, and guided only by his belief that he must make a statement
even if no one else does, Gabe creates a schism between himself and
Stuart and Stuart’s Christian wife, Diane (Susan Warrick Hasho).
But Stuart and Diane’s anger and their pursuit to Germany
pales next to the tension and the display of feelings unleashed when
Gabe is confronted by Egon (Peter Hermann), a young German policeman
assigned to clear the area. While Gabe’s motives are clearly and passionately
defined by his own memories of the most evil event in modern times,
they are also destined to be challenged by those he loves and through
the guilt and pain of a complete stranger. Although Shaw’s play doesn’t
aspire beyond its well-made forum for questions and answers, there
is a surprise ending designed to provoke more questions.
Bikel, an actor noted for creating the role of Baron Von Trapp in
"The Sound of Music" and playing such roles as Tevye in "Fiddler
on the Roof" and Zorba, brings Gabe to life as an imposing, implacable
force — yet not without the thoughtfulness of a true mentor. Just
as the Michael’s preparations for his bar mitzvah symbolize the next
phase of his life, this maturing incident actualizes it. Through Eisenberg’s
astonishing and always personable performance we are with the young
man every step of the way. Under Rebecca Taylor’s commendably conservative
direction, Fass, Hasho, and Hermann are also memorable in a play that
admirably serves to remind of us that the past, though it is forever
a part of us, is never the end of the story. HHH
— Simon Saltzman
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