"The Gathering" touches both the funny bone and the raw nerves of Jews living in an equal opportunity America, but still wrestling with the emotional legacy of the Holocaust.
That the play, now at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood, manages to mesh the two disparate appeals without grinding friction is a compliment to playwright Arje Shaw and a strong cast headed by veteran actor Hal Linden.
The first act opens with sculptor Gabe (Linden) chiseling a bust of boxing icon Muhammad Ali. He is interrupted by his grandson Michael (Adam Rose), who looks a bit of a nerd, but can give as good as he takes in the Yiddish-flavored banter and a chess game with his grandfather.
Gabe is a widower and a Holocaust survivor, but his son Stuart (Sam Guncler) has reached a professional peak of sorts, in 1985, by becoming a speech writer for President Ronald Reagan.
Rounding out the family is Diane (Deirdre Lovejoy), Stuart's wife and Michael's mother, and an Irish Catholic convert to Judaism.
A Shabbat dinner is interrupted by a phone call from Stuart's boss, Pat Buchanan, announcing that Reagan has accepted an invitation by German Chancellor Kohl to visit the cemetery in Bitberg, where German soldiers, including SS men, are buried. Stuart is to draft Reagan's remarks.
A bitter emotional and generational argument erupts between father and son about honoring the memory of the Holocaust, against "moving on" in American life, 40 years after the slaughter.
The second act transfers the action to the Bitberg cemetery, where Gabe and Michael, in tallit and yarmulke, have gone surreptitiously to celebrate the boy's bar mitzvah as a protest gesture and to confront Reagan and Kohl.
They are found by a young German soldier, Egon (Coleman Zeigen), who, counter to stereotype, engages Gabe in a long and respectful discussion on the open wounds festering between Jews and Germans.
"I do not accept the guilt for what my grandfather did, but I accept the responsibility," says the German.
The cast, directed by Rebecca Taylor, delivers strong performances, with Linden dominating the stage most of the time, but given a good run by Rose as the bar mitzvah boy. Only Guncler, as Stuart, perhaps by design, comes across as a paler figure.
"The Gathering" enjoyed a long and critically acclaimed run off-Broadway and is now headed for Broadway itself. Opening-night audience in L.A. included a noticeable percentage of yarmulke-wearing patrons, so the play may well attract a usually under-represented segment of the theater-going public.
"The Gathering" continues through March 1 at the Wadsworth Theatre on the Veterans Administration grounds (11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood). Tickets range from $25 to $50. Phone Telecharge for tickets at (800) 233-3123. For groups, call (818) 986-2908.
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