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‘The Gathering’ is sincere, but dated

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From left, Kahlil Leneus, Tracy Camp, Edward Nattenberg and Arje Shaw appear in “The Gathering” at Royce Gallery. (Courtesy DavidAllenStudio.com)

Sometimes a new play is perfectly suited to its time and place, but doesn’t remain relevant because it doesn’t strike a universal chord.

That’s the case with Arje Shaw’s American-family drama “The Gathering,” onstage in The City in an independent staging by director Joy Carlin.

Set in 1985, the play’s first off-Broadway production was in 1999 (starring Theodore Bikel and Jesse Eisenberg), and it was last seen on Broadway, starring Hal Linden, in 2001.

In this new production, the author himself — a dead ringer for Jonathan Banks (Mike) in “Breaking Bad”– plays the lead role of Gabe, a Dachau survivor and former communist who, despite being a loving grandfather to bar-mitzvah-boy Michael (Kahlil Leneus), is paralyzed by hatred toward the Germans and an inability to truly face his own most personal demons.

To add to his bitterness, his son, Stuart (an excellent Edward Nattenberg), is a speech writer for the Republican White House.

The central catalyzing event is President Reagan’s trip to Germany to pay tribute to fallen German soldiers, including Nazis, at Bitburg Cemetery. That actual diplomatic misstep did indeed provoke the ire of Jews everywhere.

Gabe’s not-very-believable response is to basically kidnap his grandson and head to Bitburg for a protest demonstration, where an encounter with a young German guard (a convincingly stoical Aaron Kitchin) propels the play to a sentimental conclusion.

Shaw rewrote the script recently to update the Jewish family: Mom (Tracy Camp) is African-American, Michael is biracial.

Issues abound about what it means to be Jewish in a family of mixed races and differing political allegiances; the struggles of first-generation Americans, especially those, like Gabe, with survivor guilt; father-son tensions with a grandchild caught between them; and more.

But there is too much inconsequential chatter, some of it meant to be warmly humorous, interspersed with too many repetitive arguments that attempt to cover too many fraught concerns and tend to devolve into cliché.

It doesn’t help that some of the acting is uneven (Shaw is emotionally connected but too often defaults to stereotype) and that the staging in the tiny space feels awkward and static.

Without fresh insights into events of the past that still do resonate — or a more imaginative approach to exploring those events, and the relationships affected by them — “The Gathering,” as sincere and impassioned as it clearly is, does not feel urgent and involving today.

REVIEW

The Gathering
Presented by Jones Street Productions
Where: Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, closes June 19
Tickets: $22 to $33
Contact: www.TheGatheringplay.com

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