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Theater Review

Looking for Subtlety Among Easy Answers in 'Gathering'

Hal Linden brings an understated humanity to the sometimes over-explained events in this Broadway-bound drama.

February 06, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Patrick Buchanan's star may be falling, four years at a time, but the presidential hopeful remains a reliable punch line. At one point in Arje Shaw's play "The Gathering," now in a pre-Broadway run at Brentwood's Wadsworth Theater, a Holocaust survivor's son, recently hired as a speech writer for President Ronald Reagan, is seated for Sabbath dinner with his family. The phone rings. It's his boss, Reagan communications director Buchanan.

Gabe, the Dachau survivor played by Hal Linden, can't suppress himself: "Anti-Semite!" he bellows as his son takes the call. The audience roars its approval.

Linden, a savvy, enormously charismatic presence, relishes this character, originated in the 1999 off-Broadway premiere by Theodore Bikel. (After the Wadsworth run, the current production moves on to two Florida engagements prior to an April Broadway opening.) Linden's not the only strong aspect: Director Rebecca Taylor goes for crisp pacing and dispatch throughout a breezy two hours.

The approach enlivens a pretty contrived piece, an overly tidy drama with predominantly comic rhythms. We're introduced to the sculptor Gabe Stern in his New York City studio in spring 1985. A radio report refers to Reagan's imminent visit to Germany. We see only Linden's back at this point, as he's chiseling a bust of one of Gabe's heroes, Muhammad Ali. The shrug that Linden manages upon hearing the radio report reveals more, and more subtly, than most of the ensuing dialogue.

Gabe's quippy grandson Michael (Adam Rose) is two weeks away from his bar mitzvah. Gabe's speech-writer son, Stuart (Sam Guncler), wants everything to come off perfectly, right down to the carved ice swans.

Why did Gabe boycott Stuart's own bar mitzvah years ago? The question eats at Stuart. Meantime, his job is eating at him as well. How can you do it? wonders Gabe. How can you justify Reagan's famously clueless visit to the Bitburg cemetery, home to various Nazi dead?

As Shaw's characters lay out their viewpoints on the Holocaust's legacy, the action moves (improbably) from New York to Bitburg. Gabe kidnaps grandson Michael, in the nicest way, in order to protest the Reagan visit in person. Stuart and his Irish Catholic convert wife, Diane (Deirdre Lovejoy), track them down just as things are getting heated between Gabe and a tightly wound German officer (Coleman Zeigen).

By play's end, everyone has come to understand everyone else's point of view. The moral dilemmas are summarized for easy consumption. Stuart wises up to his own hyper-assimilated nature, but not before Gabe thunders: "Do I have to remind you who you are?" And then, in case we haven't picked up on it: "You hate being a Jew!"

Surrounded by unseen ghosts, Gabe eventually unleashes his long-chained Delayed Secret, relating to his hellish wartime experience. It's affecting; how could it not be? Yet "The Gathering" could benefit from an unresolved feeling or two. The larger issues--all relating to the death of 6 million--defy facile explanation and feel-goodisms.

*

Linden's skill defies them too. This actor has an easy command of an audience, crack comic timing and a knack for humanizing the melodrama. Linden and Rose, as grandfather and grandson, work together like a well-oiled vaudeville team. Guncler can't do much with Stuart, since he's a plot device more than a person, but he doesn't overdo a single beat. Lovejoy is good as Diane, though if she played out the audience any more, she'd be in the audience. Zeigen finesses the role of Egon, the soul of modern Germany, with a nice eye toward suppressed grief.

We keep hearing about Gabe's taciturn qualities, yet the Gabe we see is Mr. Banter, and then, when the plot requires it, Mr. Pathos. Linden reconciles both extremes, much to his credit, and suggests a few midpoints when he can. But the playwright needn't be so concerned with pulling our cheeks and tickling our ribs, while hinting at unfathomable, all-too-recent anguish.

* "The Gathering," Wadsworth Theater, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood. Wednesdays, 2 p.m.; Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Final week, Feb. 27-March 1: Tuesday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Thursday, 8 p.m. Ends March 1. $25-$50. (800) 233-3123; groups, (818) 986-2908. Running time: 2 hours.

Hal Linden: Gabe

Adam Rose: Michael

Deirdre Lovejoy: Diane

Sam Guncler: Stuart

Coleman Zeigen: Egon

Written by Arje Shaw. Directed by Rebecca Taylor. Scenic concept by Steven Lambert. Scenic adaptation by Michael Anania. Costumes by Susan Soetaert. Lighting by Scott Clyve. Music by Andy Stein. Sound by Jeremy M. Posner and T. Richard Fitzgerald. Production stage manager Dom Ruggiero.

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