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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

his Haftora.

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

The Gathering, Playhouse 91, 316 East 91 Street, New York.

$35. 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

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