BWW Review: THE CHOSEN at Lyric Stage
Adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok, From the novel by Chaim Potok; Directed and Staged by Daniel Gidron; Scenic Design, Brynna Bloomfield; Costume Design, Mallory Frers; Lighting Design, John Malinowski; Sound Design, Dewey Dellay; Floor Projections, Martin Mendelsberg; Production Stage Manager, Maureen Lane; Assistant Stage Manager, Samantha Setayesh
Spiro Veloudos has a gift for choosing plays that tell good stories and, on the occasions when he defers the director’s chair, choosing a director who is an accomplished storyteller. For the Lyric Stage Company’s second production of the season, Producing Artistic Director Veloudos wisely selected Daniel Gidron to direct and stage The Chosen, adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok from Potok’s 1967 novel of the same name. Gidron’s direction respects the religious and scholarly aspects of the book while delving deeply into the emotional intelligence of the characters and the richness of their relationships.
Potok focuses on the burgeoning friendship between Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders, as well as the two father-son relationships, to show how conflict can lead to acceptance and better understanding of differences. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1944, playing baseball was a way for Jewish boys to feel American, even as they attended their own schools, were compelled to study religious topics as well as secular subjects, and wore yarmulkes and payot (sidelocks of hair). At the age of 15, both boys are serious about baseball and meet when their opposing school teams square off. With Reuven on the pitcher’s mound and Danny up at bat, they take an immediate dislike to one another, but neither could foresee that a lifelong friendship would result from Danny hitting the ball directly at Reuven’s face.
Despite the chasm between Danny’s Hasidic world and Reuven’s secular brand of Orthodox Judaism, and the philosophical differences between Danny’s Rabbi father Reb Saunders and Talmudic scholar/Zionist David Malter, the boys forge an unbreakable bond and learn what it means to be a true friend. Standing on the sidelines, watching their boys come of age, the senior Saunders and Malter exhibit a striking contrast in parenting styles. The latter shares a warm, collegial relationship with his son, always instructing him in the ways of the world and inviting him to challenge the status quo. Reb Saunders is old school, using the language of silence to communicate (or not) with Danny, opting to speak only when they vigorously debate the meanings of Talmud. As it is for the Rabbi’s followers, so too is his word law for his son.
By its nature, The Chosen is a play that leans heavily on the cerebral and offers little action beyond the baseball game in the early going. To rise above this challenge, Posner and Potok employ the technique of having another actor as the adult Reuven narrate the events and offer commentary to enhance their context. Gidron’s staging also makes good use of the small set, sometimes simultaneously showing scenes downstage at the Saunders’ home and upstage in Malter’s study, the dialogue bouncing back and forth like a ping pong match. The most important factor, however, is the vitality that each of the five actors brings to their role, generating interest and excitement by their fully realized portrayals.
I think Joel Colodner (Reb Saunders) must have been a rabbi in a previous life. His costume lets us know his occupation, but his carriage when he walks, the timbre of his voice, and his overall dignity lend authenticity and gravitas to his rendering of the great Tzadik (Hasidic spiritual leader). When he speaks to his congregation, he has the bearing of the wise spiritual leader. When he finally explains his silence to Danny, his pain and pride threaten to engulf him, but he makes his son and the audience understand the rightness of his actions.