Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen, is a beloved classic. Twenty years ago, playwright Aaron Posner brought the story to life in a stage adaptation. That work, in a slightly new form, is receiving a satisfying production at Long Wharf Theatre through December 17th. This poignant, and sometimes powerful, play delves into such universal themes as friendship, father-son relationships, developing identity and purpose, and religious adherence and tolerance.
Set in the 1940’s, near the end of World War II, we are introduced to two young Jewish teens, Reuven Malter (Max Wolkowitz), a Conservative adherent and Daniel Saunders (Ben Edelman), a follower of Hasidism. Living only five blocks apart in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York their spheres--primed by their religious faiths--are light years apart. In the aftermath of a baseball accident the two boys become acquainted and quickly become fast friends. Soon, the pair is introduced to each other’s world--a strict, solitary life for Daniel, overseen by his distant, scholarly father, the rabbi Reb Saunders (George Guidall); and a more nurturing, loving household for Reuven, who lives alone with his father, David Malter (Steven Skybell), a modern day intellectual, writer and champion of Jewish causes. Through their interactions, and as the years pass, the two young men begin to assert themselves, both personally and academically, as they forge new and unfamiliar terrain. They also learn the truth behind sometimes difficult life lessons their father’s taught, both overtly and furtively.
A central question for non-Jewish theater-goers might be is The Chosen too much of a Jewish show. While individuals with a Jewish background may find more meaning and identification with the characters, setting, and events of the show, the themes it addresses are so universal as to, fortunately, make the inquiry almost irrelevant.
The adaptation by Aaron Posner, who has also successfully transformed Potok’s book, My Name is Asher Lev, for the stage, hits upon the major junctures and stirring moments of the book. He has crafted a drama that is at times compelling and heartrending. He has modified the play somewhat by eliminating the character of the narrator, who was an older Reuven Malter looking back at his teenage years. This revision helps streamline the show, allowing the audience to more focus on the four central characters. The playwright has also fleshed out the presentation by adding an ensemble of four students—played at times as part of Danny’s movement or Reuven’s arm of Judaism. This revision adds some volume to certain scenes such as the opening baseball game.
The cast is professional and well-tuned to their characters. Max Wolkowitz’s Reuven Malter shows inquisitiveness and determination. He ably straddles the world of the secular and religious as he forges a new and, at times, complex friendship. Ben Edelman as Daniel Saunders, with his awkwardness and at times labored interactions, radiates an inner torment as he tries to balance duty, honor, and the realities of a new age. George Guidall gives a nuanced performance as the stoic and contemplative Reb Saunders. He aptly portrays the leader of his Hasidic community, a man with the weight of multitudes on his shoulders. Steven Skybell renders the character of David Malter with optimism, compassion as well as a degree of thoughtful studiousness.
Director Gordon Edelstein nimbly guides the four performers through the ebb and flow of the production and seamlessly integrates the ensemble at strategic points of the play. The scenes that focus on the father/son relationships are strong and convincing. Even though there can be a lot of philosophical ruminations and some abstract concepts discussed, as with the Gematria, a form of Jewish numerology, the director nimbly keeps the pace brisk and pulsating. My only criticism is the way Danny is presented. Yes, he is a member of a close-knit, insular group, but he comes across as too mannered throughout the production. It would seem, through his ongoing exposure to the outside world, he could have developed a less stilted affect over the time frame of the play
The Chosen, a dynamic and crowd-pleasing drama at Long Wharf through December 17th.