Aaron Posner’s splendid adaptation of Chaim Potok’s well-loved novel, The Chosen, immerses the audience in a time now distant, and in a culture that has persisted since the dawn of literacy. In a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn in 1944, two young men, boys really, from radically different branches of Judaism live only five blocks apart, but exist in separate cultural worlds. Reuven (Sam Mandel) is a modern orthodox Jewish teenager raised by his widowed father, David Malter (Jonathan Arkin), a Talmudic scholar, writer, and schoolteacher at his son’s yeshiva. Reuven is a lover of baseball and thoroughly immersed in American culture. Danny (Dor Gvirtsman) is a Hasidic Jew and wears the traditional, long, shiny black coat, beaver hat and long side locks, or payos, commonly seen in Jewish neighborhoods and elsewhere. He is the son of the community’s tzaddik, Reb Saunders (Alan Blumenfeld), the spiritual leader of his community.
The boys come into conflict at a ball game between the Hasidic and Orthodox yeshivas. Danny is a haughty, fiercely aggressive player who smacks a line drive straight at Reuven, the pitcher, who catches it in the face, breaking his glasses and putting him the hospital with a patch over his eye. As might be expected the boys become unlikely friends. Danny is wickedly brilliant with an eidetic memory. So extraordinary is his mind that his father fears his intellect will exceed his compassion. Reb Saunders adopts a cruel-to-be-kind regime of silence with his son, speaking to him only when they are engaged in Talmudic study.
As the boys grow into manhood, the world continues in violence and, at the end of the war when the full horror of the Holocaust becomes known, the pain and loss explodes into unbearable angst. More family conflict comes into play driving the boys apart. Reuven’s father is an ardent Zionist, foursquare for the establishment of Israel as a Jewish homeland, his mantra, “Never again!” Reb Saunders considers such a secular state anathema.
Playwright Posner’s adaptation uses a narrative style to move the story through the years with Reuven acting as a storyteller to bridge the time gaps, much as Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager does in Our Town. This can be a risky scheme if there is more telling than showing. Posner finds the perfect balance, and Mr. Mandel is an engaging storyteller. Mr. Gvirtsman is ideally cast with attitudes and emotions that run the gamut from frosty hauteur to joyous friendship to agonizing emotional pain. Mr. Arkin as Reuven’s father displays compassionate concern for his son, wise discretion with Danny, and fierce power in defense of Zionism. And Mr. Blumenfeld is simply extraordinary as Reb Saunders, dominating the stage with charismatic power, both contained and released, as the plot surges toward a satisfying climax and an affecting dénoument.
With deftness and savvy, director Simon Levy keeps the action brisk and the performances heartfelt. The creative team for The Chosen is first rate with a scenic design and props by DeAnne Millais. I appreciate the structural steel flourishes that call to mind the Williamsburg Bridge. Lighting by designer Donny Jackson is subtle and transparent. Yee Eun Nam is video designer; Peter Bayne is the composer and sound designer; costumes by Michele Young are ideal for character and period, with hair and makeup designed by Linda Michaels. And my ear applauds the dialect coaching by Andrea Caban. Miranda Stewart manages the stage and Rabbi Jim Kaufman consults
The Chosen is produced for the Fountain Theatre by Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor, along with associate producer is James Bennett. The Chosen has been extended yet again, a final extension that must close June 10! Don’t miss show now playing at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue in Los Angeles.