After the popular success of its production of Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev” several years back in director Aaron Posner’s meticulous adaptation, it’s no wonder that the Barrington Stage Company decided to mount another of Posner’s Potok adaptations, this time the much-beloved coming of age story, “The Chosen.”
And again, the BSC has struck gold, as Posner directs a dynamic cast in his very faithful adaptation that manages to encapsulate the book’s many vital arguments regarding the relationships between fathers and son, the legacy of the Holocaust, the struggles between traditional and modern Judaism and the question of a secular vs. religious Israeli state. This time, the production is staged on the theater’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, rather than on the smaller St. Germain stage, where their production of “Asher Lev” originated. The Mainstage is an appropriate choice for “The Chosen” as its themes are broader and more encompassing than those of the more intimate and specific “Asher Lev.” At times, it seems as if the Mainstage is itself insufficient to contain all the ideas that are so mesmerizingly swirling across the stage.
“The Chosen,” which takes place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the waning years of World War II and thereafter, tells the story of two teenage boys, Reuven Malter, the son of a modern Jewish writer and Talmudic scholar who champions the creation of an independent Jewish state, and Danny Saunders, the son of Reb Saunders, the imposing leader of a tight Hasidic congregation. An accident on a baseball field brings the boys together and subsequently into each other’s family’s lives. It turns out that Danny has already met Reuven’s father, David, in the neighborhood library where he, against the rules of his community, has gone to seek out contemporary reading material.
Danny is being raised to become the next tauddik of his father’s community, following in a tradition that has continued for hundreds of years. Reb Saunders, however, only speaks to his son during Talmudic study and only about the subject at hand. He wants his son to listen to the silences, but Danny is frustrated and hurt by this perceived distance between him and his father, especially as compared to the warmth in the relationship between Reuven and his widowed father.
The play is narrated by an older Reuven, who is looking back on the days depicted in the story as a younger actor plays his teenaged self, and who will occasionally step in to assume the part of another character. His narrative arc follows the two boys from high school through to college where they make monumental life decisions that threaten to impact their relationships with their respective fathers.
Posner has staged the saga quite lovingly without jeopardizing the human emotions and genuine drama at the play’s heart. He allows the boys’ characters to slowly emerge just as they change from their baseball clothing into their everyday clothes as their friendship begins and deepens. Posner assures that we have time to absorb and keep up with the occasional Yiddish and Hebrew terms and understand the rituals and traditions that are played out on stage, notably a question and answer session between Reb Saunders and his son in the shul that eventually involves Reuven’s significant participation.
With set and costume designer Meghan Raham, Posner places the Malter and Saunders households on either side of the stage, designated merely by a table and some chairs. A bench in between will represent other locations, with a drawing of the Williamsburg Bridge soaring in the background. Towering above the two households are arches suggestive of a temple with a Hebrew phrase written across the top, translated by Reuven, the narrator, as “Both These and These are the words of the living God,” highlighting the theological contradiction at the heart of the play.
The cast are perfectly cast and more than merely believable. By the end of the evening, they have become so alive and rich that you feel you have spent a lifetime getting to know them. Richard Schiff, best known for his role as Toby Ziegler on the television series “The West Wing,” is virutally unrecognizable here as Reb Saunders with long, full beard and payos. Even his voice is different, more sturdy and authoritative, yet studied and careful. He makes for an initially imposing and daunting figure especially when he is alone with his son, but as the teenage Reuven spends more time at the Saunders household we begin to obtain a more nuanced understanding of this indeed difficult, yet profoundly religious man.
Adam Heller conveys David Malter’s intelligence with a riveting pace that reveals the man’s need to express his thoughts with a mystical obsessiveness that matches Reb Saunders’ own drive. His high point may come with a dynamic, relentless speech he delivers before an enthusiastic crowd at Madison Square Garden in support of the Israeli homeland, although his small tender moments helping his son discover the joys of his new friendship and develop an appreciation for Reb Saunders’ beliefs and way of life is equally as powerful in its emotional tenderness.
The young actors cast as the boys do a tremendous job in creating characters understandably anchored in both the 1940’s and in two contrasting aspects of Jewish tradition. Jeff Cuttler aptly displays Young Reuven’s uncertainty as he tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life, while unexpectedly encountering this entirely new culture that existed for 16 years literally five blocks away from where he and his father lived. Ben Rosenbach handles the demands of Danny Saunders’ character quite well, from his tentative confidence in developing a friendship with Reuven to the tense, yearning silences he must share in the presence of his father. His longer hair and payos contribute to Danny being the somewhat darker character, but Rosenbach ably suggests the costs of the internal struggles he is experiencing as he tries to realize his desires for his own life. Both actors make real and palpable the friendship between the two young men, which is essential to the play’s success. Their reconciliation following an unfortunately mandated separation by Danny’s father is one of the evening’s funniest and most satisfying scenes.
Richard Topol is charged with the task of telling the story as the older Reuven, interacting more with the audience than the other characters as he wanders around and through the action. His calmness, poise and confidence allow us to see, however, the man that young Reuven has become which in itself is quite a rewarding experience.
I recall a movie version of “The Chosen” from the late 1980’s or 90’s which is probably available on line, but Posner, I think, has done a real service by adapting the novel into play form. It makes the script available to schools and theater companies to keep the novel’s story alive and allows it to be shared on the personal, intimate basis that only live theater can provide. The plus is that Posner and Potok’s adaptation is excellent theatrically, maintaining a consistent level of interest and providing the rewards that only the most genuine theater experiences can provide.
“The Chosen” plays at the Barrington Stage Company’s Mainstage through August 3. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 413.236.8888 or visit their website at www.barringtonstageco.org.
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