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The Gate of Heaven is the sort of well-meaning theatrical enterprise you can’t help wanting to give the benefit of the doubt. It begins in 1945 with a Japanese-American soldier staggering out the front gate of Dachau cradling a Jewish survivor in his arms, and ends some 50 years later with the same men, now fast friends, in much the same pose. It is suffused with compassion, tolerance, and optimism about the human spirit, and is serious enough about multiculturalism to involve its scenery-moving, black-robed Japanese Kurokos in a Passover Seder at the end of the first act.
It is also theatrically inert, which means none of the foregoing matters a whit in performance. During the first scene you wish everybody well. During the second you wish the director would speed things up. After that, you just wish it would be over.
Which is not to suggest that authors Lane Nishikawa and Victor Talmadgewho have co-starred in Gate from its initial workshops through its April 1995 performance at the Holocaust Museum to the current run at Ford’s Theatrehaven’t created two reasonably lifelike characters, or that the traumas those characters experience aren’t explosive enough to become the stuff of drama. There just aren’t any explosions on stage…or rather, there’s only one (a sushi vs. steak argument that improbably expands into accusations of racism), and it happens way too late to salvage a two-and-a-half-hour evening.
As for the rest, consider these early plot points: Sam (Nishikawa) saves Leon (Talmadge) from Dachau and nurses him back to health, an act for which he receives a Silver Star for heroism. Soon after, for reasons not immediately revealed to the audience, Sam receives an undeserved court-martial. Leap forward 10 years. Sam is summoned to an interview with an Army shrink. Sam discovers that the shrink is Leon.
It’s not hard to imagine how these events could have been orchestrated into a conflict-filled narrative. Sam might have appealed his court-martial, for instance, with the Army unwittingly assigning Leon to investigate. Or Leon might have learned independently of Sam’s dismissal from the service and decided to come to the defense of the man who saved his life. Or Leon might somehow have created Sam’s difficulties, and now be checking up on his handiwork (if he’s a bad guy) or trying to undo it (if he’s a good guy).
None of these possibilities would necessarily make for rip-roaring drama, but any of them would have a better shot at engaging an audience than what the authors have concocted. In their formulation, Leon has simply looked up Sam to say “thanks” and to try to strike up a friendship. Sam’s court martial is entirely unrelated to the other events, isn’t even mentioned again in the script for more than an hour and three-quarters, and is then used merely to bludgeon theatergoers with the fact that Japanese-American soldiers in WWII encountered racism on their return to the U.S.
This qualifies as decidedly old news by that point in Gate’s rudderless narrative, which is mostly concerned with contrasting Japanese-American and German
Jewish-American assumptions about life, loyalty, and prejudice. The evening’s premise appears to be that Sam and Leon are the ultimate odd couple, so separated by culture and history that they might as well come from different planets. Their initial conversations, in fact, are disjointed enough that patrons will be forgiven for assuming that they’re having language problems. What becomes apparent as incident follows incident in their lives without much in the way of authorial design, is that these guys are simply on different cultural wavelengths, more apt to talk at than to each other, and inclined to do so in long, expository paragraphs.
Benny Sato Ambush’s staging labors mightily to fuse these paragraphs to visually interesting activity (Sam giving Leon a judo lesson) or to punctuate them with period-appropriate images (LBJ’s swearing in after JFK’s assassination) that are projected on a screen above the actors’ heads. Sometimes, when the director goes into illustrative overdrive, he reaps simpleminded results, as in a passage where Leon’s Old Testament Jewish-exodus stories (accented with a slide of Hebraic scripture) are counterpointed by Sam’s ancestors-in-Hawaii stories (accented with a slide of Oriental artwork) and the screen images blur together into what looks like a dinner platter for a Japanesque Seder. But for the most part, Ambush’s contributions neither help nor hinder the proceedings.
That’s also true of the oddly decorative backdrop of gated portals designed by Ralph Funicelloa Dachau-conjuring barbed-wire fence, flanked on either side by a red-painted grid and a white stone wall presumably representing Japan and Israel. Susan Snowden’s costumes, Kevin Rigdon’s lighting, and Michael Roth’s musical noodlings are all unexceptionable but not particularly helpful in lifting the evening above the level of tolerance-seminar pageant.
The script might actually work better if presented as a sort of human rights lecture, without all the theatrical detritus it acquired in its travels from the Holocaust Museum to San Diego’s Old Globe Theater to Ford’s. Of course, pared down, the evening could never justify a $24-36 ticket price or play in legitimate theaters. Presumably that’s why Nishikawa and Talmadge enlisted the help of playwright David Henry Hwang (prominently credited in the program for his dramaturgy) in giving the show dramatic shape. From his program notes, it appears Hwang urged the authors to focus the characters and sharpen the point of their anecdotal material, but didn’t go so far as to suggest that they create an actual story on which to hang their pleas for tolerance and appreciation of diversity. He should have.
The Gate of Heaven has clearly been a labor of love for all concerned, and is as earnest and as heartfelt as can be. Now it needs to trade a few of its good intentions for some plot developments, and turn itself into a play.CP