Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review of "The Chosen"

Playhouse on Park scores another winning production with the powerful and poignant stage adaptation of the Chaim Potok coming-of-age novel, The Chosen.  The play delves into such themes as friendship, father-son relationships, developing identity and purpose, and religious adherence and tolerance.    The show runs at the West Hartford theater through February 14th.

Set in the 1940’s, near the end of World War II, we are introduced to two young Jewish teens, Reuven Malter (Jordan Wolfe), a Conservative adherent and Daniel Saunders (Joshua Whitson), 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 (Damian Buzzerio); and a more nurturing, loving household for Reuven, who lives alone with his father, David Malter (Dan Shor), 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.  Unifying the production is the role of the narrator (David Gautschy), in the guise of an older, wiser Reuben Malter. 

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 Levs, 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.

All the actors are well-cast and impressive.  Jordan Wolfe as the young Reuven Malter is boyish, inquisitive and determined.  He ably straddles the world of the secular and religious.  Joshua Whitson as Daniel Saunders, with his stilted speech and cumbersome affect, radiates an inner torment as he tries to balance duty, honor, and the realities of a new age.  Damian Buzzerio as Reb Saunders is stoic, contemplative, and a man with the weight of multitudes seemingly on his shoulders.  Dan Shor, as David Malter, provides the most nuanced performance of the play, exuding optimism, compassion as well as a degree of thoughtful studiousness.  David Gautschy, narrating a significant portion of the production as the older Reuben, in addition to playing other characters, effectively connects scenes with humor, passion, and a skillful manner.

Director Dawn Loveland strategically moves the actors around the small performing space like chess pieces in a tension-filled game.  She nimbly guides the five performers through the ebb and flow of the production and seamlessly integrates the role of the narrator into the rhythm of the show.  While her guidance keeps the audience thoroughly involved with the story, the veteran director should have mixed the positioning of the actors better so the audience seated on the sides of the theater would not have prolonged looks at the actor’s backs.  The dramatic reveal near the end of the production could also have been teased out for a more emotional moment. 

The Chosen, a dynamic and crowd-pleasing drama at Playhouse on Park through February 14th.

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