We go to live theater for fireworks, but in the case of Theater J’s fine staging of The Chosen, transplanted to Arena Stage for a brief run, often the production’s pleasures are revealed in the silences and the emotions unspoken between fathers and sons, as well as between two very different friends.
The joys are deep and stirring in The Chosen, adapted and directed by Aaron Posner from Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel. Mr. Posner gives this thoughtful literary work ample space to breathe, and he and the astute cast trust the silences, which gives the audience time to sit quietly with the play and reflect—a luxury in these antsy, multi-tasking times.
This is not to say that the contemplative nature of the production detracts from the beauty of Mr. Potok’s language, which unfolds like a vital intellectual discourse with one question leading to more profound and complex inquiry. The spoken word is paramount in this adaptation, and the rich discussions are seasoned with Yiddish and Hebrew phrases. For the goyim, there is a glossary in the program, but translations are often seamlessly grafted into the narrative.
The Chosen shifts effortlessly between worlds—the insular world of the Jewish neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn in the 1940s and the wide world beckoning beyond the community’s borders; the tight friendship between two boys and the separate, spinning orbits of their fathers; the state of American Jewry and the controversial founding of the state of Israel.
To knit together all these perspectives, The Chosen relies on a narrator, Reuven Malter (a compassionate Aaron Davidman), as an older man looking back on the circumstances and relationships that molded him into the person he is today. Reuven’s story begins on that quintessentially American of turfs, the baseball field, as young Reuven Malter (Derek Kahn Thompson) is embroiled in what he calls a “holy war” with Danny Saunders (Joshua Morgan), a killer player from a rival team.
Reuven and Danny are as different as Bosco and borscht. Reuven, the only son of respected Talmud scholar David Malter (Edward Gero), is a typical war-time teen — a lover of movies, the radio, baseball, and girls. Danny is a constricted and intense Hasidic Jew, the son of a powerful rabbi, Reb Saunders (Rick Foucheux), and the dutiful heir to his father’s followers.
The boys are united by their quicksilver minds and their love of learning. As they navigate through their teens and young adult years, this common ground is shaken up by their relationships and loyalties to their fathers, as well as their determination to find what gives their lives meaning. And they discover their individual passions not only through endless conversations and examinations, but through learning to listen to the silence, what is being expressed beyond words.
Set designer James Kronzer captures the disparate worlds in a handsomely appointed set that shows the cozy, academic messiness of Reuven and his father’s apartment contrasted with the forbidding and stately décor of Reb Saunders’ study. Usually, the in-the-round space of the Fichandler is problematic and under-utilized, but Mr. Kronzer gets creative and in one happy instance uses the four corners of the stage to recreate Reuven and Danny’s first contentious baseball game and to also portray the friends’ long-standing tradition of long walks and talks.
What makes this production sing is the lovely, musical interplay between the actors. Especially compelling are Mr. Thompson and Mr. Morgan playing the young Reuven and Danny, slipping into the rhythms and cadences of male friendship with openness and ease. The differences between them are finely etched–Mr. Thompson’s gulpy eagerness and beguiling uncertainties against the eerie calm and grim resoluteness of Mr. Morgan. Yet they mesh beautifully. One of their best moments is when they reconcile after a long rift—they smack each other the ways guys do and then grin with the knowledge all is well. They are so convincing as friends you drift back to those intense friendships from your youth, the ones built on secrets and confessions and hours and hours of talk.
As the fathers, Mr. Foucheux conveys the intimidating nature of Rev Saunders, but also the terrible responsibilities and burdens he carries. Mr. Foucheux gives him a touch of humanity as well in the unorthodox ways he understands and loves his son. Mr. Gero is affectionately endearing as scholar David Malter, and the natural camaraderie between father and child is particularly touching to watch.
You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate this play, which is as much about specific religious customs as it is about the universal theme of breaking traditions and expectations to become the person you were meant to be.
Theater J’s production of The Chosen plays through March 27th in The Fichandler at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater, in Washington, DC.
adapted and directed by Aaron Posner . based on the novel by Chaim Potok
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission