BWW Reviews: THE CHOSEN Captivates at Barrington Stage
THE CHOSEN on stage is no less wonderful than the original book by Chaim Potok in this towering theatrical adaptation written and directed by Aaron Posner. With a first rate cast at Barrington Stage, the tale of two fathers and their sons is both gripping theatre and food for thought.
It opened last night at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and goes down in my book as one of the most memorable nights I have ever spent in the theatre. Ever.
It not just that the show itself raised the audience out of their seats into a genuine standing ovation, complete with cheering, tears of joy and smiles of delight. It's more than that. Barrington Stage Company, where magic happens more often than not, simply outdid itself with every element just perfect: the physical, the technical and the creativity of the actors is simply as good as I have ever seen, even on Broadway.
Under the creative hand of director Aaron Posner, a theatrical Houdini, the staging was mind boggling from the outset when a baseball game somehow took place while the actors were all safely assembled inside a giant library in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge..
Through the use of exquisitely timed lighting and sound effects, we were suddenly outdoors again, as two boys from different yeshivas played against each other with passion. It was all there, the other team, a father and a rabbi watching as the fiercely fought game comes down to its final moments. Then, in a terrible accident, batter Daniel Saunders ( Ben Rosenbach) hits a ball straight at young pitcher Reuven Malter (Jeff Cuttler) who ends up with broken glasses, and a glass shard in his eye.
From this dramatic beginning the story of THE CHOSEN unfolds as it follows the two boys, their fathers, and their friendship as they live out their most formative years from 1944 to 1948 in Brooklyn.
That they are Jewish has everything to do with this story of course, but should not deter anyone who isn't from taking in this incredible drama about growing up religious surrounded by the secular world. Whether you went to a parochial, private or Sunday school, the specific beliefs might be different from those gleaned from the Talmud, but your experiences were very likely similar in many ways. The pressures from our families, and their adherance to religious and cultural beliefs are always around us, and in our daily lives. This story of how two people navigate the strong and conflicting currents is universal.
The author of the original novel, Chaim Potok (1929-2002) was an American Jewish author and rabbi. The Chosen (1967 ) was his first novel and sold more than 3.4 million copies. It ended up on The New York Times bestseller list for 39 weeks. Two seasons ago Potok's novel My Name Is Asher Lev ( published in 1972) was also adapted and directed by Aaron Posner for Barrington Stage. That production, performed on the smaller St. Germain stage was well received as well and in fact sold out its run. After a brief hiatus it is nice to welcome the author and director back for more.
What is it about THE CHOSEN that captures people's attention do completely? In the theatre it seemed that the audience was so rapt that they barely moved, twitched or coughed for almost two hours. I think the first element must be the story itself, a tale of two families that on the surface might appear to be a setup for quarreling since they come from two different branches of the Jewish faith. Reb Sanders (Richard Schiff) is raising his son Danny in almost total silence except for their discussions of the Talmud. David Malter (Adam Heller) is providing his son Reuven far more latitude.
Overseeing the entire play, in a manner of speaking, is the older Reuven Malter (Richard Topol) who stands to one side of the stage, acting as a sort of observer and narrator, adding essential bits of information and observations that make the book such a wonderful read. He also plays a couple of other characters briefly. Trimming down a book so full of characters and incidents so they can fit on stage is no an easy task, and the use of the grown up Reuven to keep things clear and understandable is a genuine stroke of genius by Posner. Aided by precisely timed lighting cues, Topol finds the perfect level of involvement that allows him to be present but never distracting.
That I have been able to get this far into the review without talking about the role of Richard Schiff as the Rabbi is a testament to the excellence of each and every actor on stage. Reb Saunders is the most complex character in the play, and his moods range from silent communication to robust oratory and questioning. Schiff provides dignity and strength as he handles each turn of character with more verbal and visual inflections than you would think possible hiding behind a lush growth of beard. When he speaks, all eyes are riveted on him, taking in his joy or sorrow, his approval or disapproval as he raises his son Danny in public.
At the same time, Adam Heller as David Malter is an equally strong father, albeit with a more kindly streak of protective caring for his son, Reuven. His performance requires him to be ill much of the time, with a cold, or even recurring heart attacks, but he shrugs them off as best he can to focus not only on his son's needs, but those of his son's friend Danny.
As the two young friends Reuven and Danny, Jeff Cuttler and Ben Rosenbach each portray their deliciously complex character uniquely. Cuttler is the mathematician and brain of the two, while Rosenbach has a photographic memory and is fascinated by Freud and all things psychological. Since there is a strong Jewish connection to numerology Reuven quickly earns the approval of Reb Saunders while Danny gets extra help with broadening his secular horizons from David Malter. To watch the interplay of all these characters as the story progresses is a subtle reaffirmation of the importance of family, understanding and allowing each of us to develop in our own way as individuals.
The period covered by the play includes late World War II and its aftermath including the discovery of the extent of the Holocaust and the formation of the state of Israel, and the friction between the Zionists and the Orthodox many of whom - like Reb Saunders in the play - believed secular nationalism would replace the Jewish faith. THE CHOSEN does not shy away from these knotty problems that affect both boys deeply, and are part of their journey towards manhood.
The set by Meghan Raham was a flies-scraper, downstage there are desks, benches and chairs for the two homes, midstage there's a library rising from the floor to the very ceiling and upstage the towers of the great Williamsburg Bridge. Raham also designed the costumes which were both well chosen and subtle enough that while they enhanced their characters they were never distracting. The lighting by Tyler Micoleau was masterful, helping the audience accept the various changes of location without a second thought, and James Sugg's sound design was spot on. Charles G. LaPointe needs to work a bit more with a Payesuman on Danny's payees (singular payot ) or earlocks.
The heart of THE CHOSEN is the conflict we can experience when we first embrace ideas that are supposed to be forbidden to us. In Danny's case it is his interest in secular writers like Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and, most of all, the psychoanalytical world of Freud. All of this is forbidden to him by his father.
Danny, llike so many of us, is indoctrinatted into the fixed, stabilizing values and traditions which are at the heart of his family and community. As we grow, it is expected that the educated person will eventually encounter other values and ideas that may distance us from our roots. But Danny is discouraged, even forbidden to exercise his natural curiosity. So there is much about THE CHOSEN to ponder, and even enjoy. For many, it is interesting to learn a bit more about Jewish practices, including Jewish numerology (gematriya) and the wearing of fringes (tzitzit), both of which play a role in the story.
For me it was interesting that in the 1940's the secularization of students in our institutions of higher learning was a particularly important issue to American Jews and here it is the 2010's and the same issue has arisen again with Christian fundamentalists.
That one play in a couple of short hours could touch on so many complicated and important issues is a credit to all involved, starting with Chaim Potok and threading its way to artistic director Julianne Boyd. She has a knack for finding and nurturing plays of great substance that also have impeccable entertainment value. And that in a nutshell, is as good a description of THE CHOSEN as I can muster.
Barrington Stage Company presents THE CHOSEN adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok from the novel by Chaim Potok, Directed by Aaron Posner, Scenic and Costume Design by Meghan Raham, Lightin Design by Tyler Micoleao, Sound Design by James Sugg, Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe, Director of Production - Jeff Roundabush; Casting - Pat McCorkle; Press Rep - Charlie Siedenburg; Production Stage Manager - Jason Weixelman. Cast: Young Robin Malter - Jeff Cuttler; David Malter - Adam Heller; Daniel Saunders - Ben Rosenbach; Rob Saunders - Richard Schiff; Reuven Malter and others - Richard Topol. July 18-August 3, 2013. Two Acts with One Intermission. Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Union Street, Pittsfield, MA.
Photo by Scott Barrow