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.
Will McGarrahan’s Malter is a very different breed of father, but equally passionate in both his convictions and his love for his son. We can feel the warmth that passes between him and Zachary Eisenstat as young Reuven, and the special respect and caring that he shows to Danny. McGarrahan is especially fiery when Malter addresses a Zionist rally at Madison Square Garden. Eisenstat’s performance is impressive as he travels the arc from boy to man, displaying Reuven’s growing maturity and gradual acceptance of his friend’s upbringing, even when it results in an estrangement between them.
In the role of Danny, Luke Murtha meets the challenge of showing the boy’s internal struggle with few external signs. Like his character, he uses silence and pauses to convey much of what Danny is feeling. Whereas Reuven is an open book, Danny is a locked diary who often keeps his own counsel. Murtha and Eisenstat have a genuine bond, realistically portraying the stages of this unlikely friendship. Charles Linshaw as adult Reuven maintains the depth of their connection as he looks back upon the story. He speaks passionately about all that they went through together and separately, drawing us into their experiences. Linshaw also takes on a few minor characters, adding an extra splash of color to some of the anecdotes.
The design team of Brynna Bloomfield (scenic), Mallory Frers (costume), John Malinowski (lighting), Dewey Dellay (sound), and Martin Mendelsberg (floor projections) has done evocative work to bring us to this place and time. In particular, the lone stationary wall upstage resembles an ark for the Torah and Bloomfield even imposes a diamond shape on the floor to tie in with the baseball theme. The costumes for the Hasidics are authentic and the secular Jews wear clothing that reflects the fashions of the 1940s. Dellay provides neighborhood sound effects and music in mournful minor tones that resonate with familiarity, and the floor projections of Hebrew lettering add to the magic and mystery of these people.
Veloudos deserves credit for selecting The Chosen as part of the Lyric’s season, and it is a worthy follow-up to last year’s Posner/Potok play My Name is Asher Lev. It doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, nor will it hit you over the head with a message. Rather, it will take you to a time and place that most of us have not experienced, introduce you to characters you will be glad to get to know, and hit you in the heart with a compelling story of acceptance and understanding.
Photo credit: Timothy Dunn (Zachary Eisenstat, Will McGarrahan, Luke Murtha)