By Karen Isaacs
Two boys and two fathers. Aaron Posner, in his revised adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen now at Long Wharf through Dec. 17, explores two variations of that relationship.
It is 1944 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and two teenage boys become friends despite being very different. Reuven Malter, who sometimes serves as the narrator, attends a Yeshiva (private religious school for Jewish boys) and plays baseball. His father, David, is an editor and writer. They have a close relationship that includes a good measure of friendship.
At the game, Reuven is hit in the eye with a baseball when Danny Saunders hits a comebacker to the pitcher’s mound. Danny is an aggressive and powerful hitter. He also attends a Yeshiva, but his is a Hasidic school; his father is the rabbi. The Danny and his classmates view Reuven and his classmates as “apikorism” of Jews who are educated in the faith but deny its basic tenets.
Despite these differences, Reuven and Danny become fast friends and both fathers approve, though Reb Saunders has to “test” Reuven first. Danny does not seem happy with having to follow in his father’s footsteps. He is secretly reading secular literature including Freud which he finds fascinating. But he is obedient to his father’s word, even when he orders Danny to not talk to Reuven.
We follow these two boys – and to some extent their fathers – through the end of the war, the liberation of the concentration camps, college and the fight over the creation of Israel.
Besides the major world issues that go on around them, this is a classic story of two boys growing up, finding their own place in the world, and learning how to separate themselves from obedience to parental authority.
This central conflict is universal. But the play also explores other issues as well – the breach between these two branches of Judaism – the Hasidim, often considered ultra-Orthodox and those who are considered observant conservative. The two view each other with suspicion and their religious views influence their world views.
As a coming-of-age story, The Chosen is excellent. It is only when it ventures into some of the other areas that this two act play comes up short. Most obvious is that we don’t learn enough about David Malter, Reuven’s father, so that some of both his actions and those of Reb Saunders do not make sense. The two fathers have a history which would be helpful to understand.
The other area that could use more is the divergent views on the founding of Israel. You would think that Reb Saunders would be an adamant supporter of the founding of the Jewish state. He isn’t and the reasons could be clearer.
But this production directed by Gordon Edelstein does illuminate some of the issues of the play. He has gotten excellent performances from the four principal actors. Four others appear occasionally as students and others; they are mainly walk on roles with little character delineation.
It’s hard to select a standout performance from among the four principals. Each is excellent and each embodies his character. George Guidall who plays Reb Saunders returns to Long Wharf after a too long absence. He gives this character the certainty and sternness needed but shows that underneath it is an amazing understanding and warmth. He is matched by Steven Skybell as David Malter, though having to suffer two heart attacks on stage is a little much. Skybell embodies the character’s reasonableness which allows him to co-exist in this conflict neighborhood.
As the two young men, Ben Edelman as Danny Saunders uses the posture of the perennial submissive and depressed to illuminate the character’s inner dilemma: obedience to his father and his destiny versus his own desire to break out. Equally good is Max Wolkowitz as Reuven who is trying to make sense of this world.
Eugene Lee has created a terrific set; I especially liked how he handled the baseball game that begins the play. In that, he is aided by the sound design by John Gromada. In addition the lighting by Mark Barton and the costumes by Paloma Young thoroughly create the world of this play.
The Chosen succeeds as a coming-of-age story and mostly succeeds in revealing truths about this conflict within the Jewish community.
It is at Long Wharf, Long Wharf Theatre or 203-787-4282 or 800-782-8497 through Dec. 17.