Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"The Gathering"

The Gathering
Arje Shaw

Kahlil Leneus, Tracy Camp, Edward Nattenberg & Arje Shaw
Plays about a Holocaust survivor rarely open with an elderly man swapping Yiddish-filled pokes and jokes with his thirteen-year-old, African-American grandson, whom he calls ‘boychick.’  The grandfather tries half-heartedly to cajole the boy to practice his haftorah reading for his upcoming bar mitzvah while the boy begs to play chess instead, which clearly his ‘zayde’ would prefer to do, too.  With chicken soup cooking in the background of the old man’s art studio (dominated by a almost-completed bust of Mohammed Ali), the two play chess while discussing what makes a perfect kreplach, including if Zayde’s choice of pork-filled wontons will be kosher enough for today.

Thus opens a revival of Arje Shaw’s 1999 Off-Broadway, 2004 Broadway play now showing at Berkeley’s Live Oak Theatre and starring the playwright himself in the role of Gabe, Michael’s curmudgeon grandfather with nothing but twinkling eyes of love for his ‘boychick.’  With a talented, multi-racial cast about a play of three generations of one Jewish family, the play elicits a wide range of emotions during its two-hour course.  Issues erupt between father, son, and grandson on how much the sins of earlier generations pass on to those not yet born as well as if, when, and how to let go of hate and move on to reconciliation. 

The actors genuinely tackle with great skill and empathy the difficult subjects of fathers who have ignored sons, of family secrets that have been hidden in locked-up pasts, and of a survivor who is abhors how his own son seems to forget too conveniently what the Germans once did to their family and millions like them.  Unfortunately, the playwright’s script asks us as an audience to buy into and believe increasingly incredulous situations and conversations that do not seem plausible, even though they are delivered with heartfelt fervor.  And while tears may be in some eyes as the play ends, heads have to be shaking upon exit wondering how the playwright actually thinks we are vulnerable enough to believe what has been posited could have really happened.

The play’s first act moves from the back-and-forth banter of Gabe and Michael to a Shabbat dinner which Diane, an African-American Jew-by-Choice, has meticulously prepared the dietary traditions she has learned that were passed from Eastern European shtetl to her Bronx kitchen.  Gabe’s son, Diane’s husband, and Michael’s dad, Stuart, arrives to join the other three -- late from D.C. where he has recently begun working as a speech writer for President Reagan.  Tension rises as Stuart appears totally oblivious that Michael’s bar mitzvah is for actually the boy, even saying at one point, “It’s not your bar mitzvah.”  As he rattles off questions about caterers, Viennese tables, and seating arrangements, he warns Michael sternly, “Better be a good one, son ... Don’t embarrass me ... I have a lot of important people coming.” 

Against such tension at the Shabbat table, a call comes from Reagan’s Senior Advisor, Pat Buchannan (with Gabe shouting “Anti-Semite” in the background), summoning Stuart back to D.C. to prepare the President for a visit to Germany.  Chancellor Kohl has proposed they visit together a cemetery in Bitburg, a cemetery where German soldiers from WWII are buried along supposedly with some members of a former SS unit. 

That his son would become intimately involved in what he sees as an atrocity to not only himself as a camp survivor but also to the Six Million is more than Gabe can tolerate.  The explosion that erupts with shouting and accusations ends Act One, leaving many important questions hanging in the air.  All events and reactions are quite plausible to that point, especially since many in the audience remember this controversial visit Reagan actually made in 1985 and all the hubbub it caused in Congress, the Jewish press, and across much of the nation.

Arje Shaw & Kahlil Leneus
However, in Act Two, the playwright moves from this historically based set-up a series of unlikely events that are filled with stage melodrama.  Somehow we are to believe that Gabe essentially kidnaps his grandson the day before Reagan is to arrive at Bitburg, flies with him across the Atlantic, and performs the boy’s bar mitzvah at the hated cemetery just before Reagan and Kohl are to arrive.  Further, a phone message from him the night before somehow gets Diane and Stuart on a plane, across the ocean, and to the cemetery just as a young soldier is trying to convince a vehement, screaming Gabe that he and Michael must leave.  The dramatics of the cemetery reunion of the family, the subsequent confessions of an aged father, and the calm revelations of a young German soldier all begin to sound more like an quickly conceived TV movie plot than a serious play with intentions of generating reflection and conversation.

But despite a script that begins to weaken in believability and thus potential impact, the cast members themselves do all they can -- and more -- to present plausible persona, emotions, and reactions.  Arje Shaw is at his best when he is a doting, playful Grandfather to his intelligent, serious, but still kid-at-heart grandson, Michael (Kahlil Leneus).  He also is stunning as he projects the raw emotions of Gabe’s haunting memories of capture and encampment, the present and past regrets for him as a father, and the lingering anger he has for a whole nation of people that he sees as guilty then, now, and forever. 

Aaron Kitchin, Arje Shaw & Edward Nattenberg
As Gabe’s grown son Stuart, Edwin Nattenberg begins as overly insistent on his own wishes and needs and insensitive to the effects he is having on his family at the Shabbat table.  The animated exasperation he later shows toward his father in Germany is seen in his locked jaw, gritted teeth, and voice on edge by a lifetime of mounting hurt.  His own final, weeping collapse is visceral and moving, even if the events surrounding it are stretching credibility.

Kahlil Leneus plays the young Michael with poise, maturity, and a great ability to deliver authentically both Yiddish and Hebrew as well as display the kind of Jewish sayings and mannerisms that delight his Zayde.  As Diane, Tracy Camp is often a quiet force in the background but able to step in as both a caring Jewish mom, a confronting wife, and a compassionate daughter-in-law as required.  Aaron Kitchin is the young German soldier, Egon, who brings a calm, firm, steady voice and approach to his attempts to convince Gabe to leave the restricted area of the cemetery as well as a measured manner in revealing his own German family’s connections both to the Holocaust and to Israel.

As a reviewer who also happens to be Jewish and who has been heavily involved in the international teacher development organization, Facing History and Ourselves (dedicated to engaging students in the difficult history of the Holocaust and other, more recent genocides), I applaud Arje Shaw for writing this play and these actors for bringing it to the stage.  However, appealing to an audience wider than the overly Jewish one present the afternoon I attended may prove to be difficult.  The Gathering brings great intentions that get thwarted by a plot that dips too much into infeasible melodrama, thus hurting it goal fully to engage.

Rating: 3 E

The Gathering continues through August 20 at Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at www.thegatheringplay.com for performances Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Photo Credit: David Allen

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