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BWW Reviews: Astounding, Powerful THE CHOSEN at American Stage

They are still with me.

I saw THE CHOSEN at American Stage on opening night--the first show of their new season. It's now the day after, and the characters are still here. I can't shake them. This speaks volumes, because oftentimes a show evaporates soon after the drive home (and with really lightweight or mediocre plays, long before that, if you're lucky). Sometimes you enjoy a show, but once it's done, it's done. That's not the case here. Each of the four main characters (one is played by two actors, as an adult and as a teen) seem like old friends. Seeing THE CHOSEN is like visiting a moment from your past and not wanting to leave.

The show is a memory play set in Brooklyn from 1944 to 1948 and centers around the friendship of two very different Jewish teens, the Modern Orthodox Young Reuven (David Friedman) and the Hasidic Danny (Justin LeVine). World-changing events are seen through their eyes, from the news of FDR's death to the horrific findings of the Holocaust; from the end of World War II to the fight for the formation of Israel. But mostly it is about friendship and fathers, and the bond these boys share, where their religion plays such a heavy role in their lives. (No females are featured, though a photograph of Reuven's late mother sits on a cluttered bookcase for the duration of the show.)

The script, by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok (adapted from Potok's 1967 novel), is filled with so much heart as it unveils the beginnings of a beautiful friendship. There are many quotable lines and a storyline that skirts along the border of moralizing, but it never reaches the eye-rolling depths of preachiness. As strong as the script is, it's this production with five fine actors and an amazing set that elevates THE CHOSEN into an unforgettable experience. It is exquisitely directed and acted with a story that truly connects with audiences; it deserves a full house every night.

Being a memory play, it features a narrator--the Older Reuven, beautifully played by Dan Matisa. His timing is impeccable, and his presence is a comfort throughout the show. He is always onstage, always watching, yet an integral part of the action. Sometimes having an older version of a younger character wandering around the stage for the duration of a show doesn't work at all. I saw an early version of one of my favorite shows, Merrily We Roll Along, and the Older Frank was onstage through all of the action. He seemed to either get in the way of the play or just not matter at all; there was no in-between. That is not the case here. Older Reuven is the show. Everything is from his viewpoint, and Matisa is a master with whip-fast timing that brings the gorgeously written words to life. He also portrays a baseball coach and a neighborhood friend with equal gusto, showcasing an incredible range.

Equally strong is Joseph Parra as Danny's strict Hasidic father. When he's onstage, it's as if the world stops. He is bigger than life, saying more in silence than most actors say in full monologues. But when he speaks, we listen. Near the end of Act 1 he delivers a harrowing speech on the Holocaust that is filled with such understandable pain and power.

Parra has a scene near the show's end that is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen in decades of theatre-going. I won't give anything away, but it is a moment so potently written and brilliantly performed that it had me and the audience members around me tearing up. I am not an easy crier at plays, but there is nothing you can do at this moment but surrender to your tear ducts. In fact, it is so overwhelming that I worry about anyone who doesn't tear up here.

As Reuven's father, David Sitler is an understanding, yet passionate presence. You feel his fatherly love, and his relationship with his son is a true thing of beauty.

The set is simply stunning. Jerid Fox has outdone himself here, with each peninsular section of the boys' houses reinforced by a foundation of vintage books that act as bricks, supporting each home. You want to live in this world, a cozy reminder of a time sadly long lost.

The sound (by director T. Scott Wooten and Karla Hartley) is excellent, with radio announcements, music, thunderstorms, ticking clocks and even the sound of mice. There is no down time in the show; it keeps moving, but it's never hurried. Xena Petkanas' lighting is miraculous, especially when a single beam represents a fated baseball aimed at the face of one of the leads (the whole scene is beautifully choreographed). Saidah Ben-Judah's costumes hit just the right nostalgic note and are wonderfully realized.

There is a strong hand and eye behind this production, and it is that of the director, T. Scott Wooten. The blocking is seamless, the acting soul-stirring, and the pace is spot on. This is one of the tightest productions you will ever see, yet it is not rushed. For those who love the book, they will certainly love the show; for those who have never read it or know nothing about it, it will be a revelation.

Special mention needs to be made about the two teens playing Reuven and Danny. Usually teen actors want to push the emotions, want to tackle and overdo a scene rather than to react to events naturally. They want to prove their talents rather than just "be" the character. We see it all the time, in drama classes and Thespian festivals. But never fear, the two young actors in this production, David Friedman and Justin LeVine, are so natural and real that you become shocked that this is their first professional show.

Friedman, with his leading man looks, listens, which is another thing most young actors find difficult to do. He is so natural and relaxed onstage, and we know we are in good, dare I say "professional" hands. LeVine as Danny is the dictionary-definition of likable, more of a character actor but still just as real as Friedman. The two of them make quite a duo, and in some ways, they represent two different styles of acting that suit each character. (And Friedman particularly matches up well to Matisa's Older Reuven, almost uncannily so.)

That this is both boys professional debut will shock anyone who doesn't know, because they more than hold their own with the extremely talented Equity actors. To see two performers so young, yet so open, so reactive to the moment, so instinctive and effortless, is a treat beyond anything in the wondrous script. They will leave you heartened, excited that there are great young actors coming up. We root for their characters like we root for our own family members. This may be both boys' professional debuts, but judging from their work in THE CHOSEN, it looks like they've been professionals their whole lives.

And now it's the day after, and I'm still thinking about the show and little else, still marveling in each detail, still fondly recalling each performance. I will be carrying it with me for quite some time. And so will you.

THE CHOSEN at American Stage plays until September 28th. For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY (7529).

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From This Author Peter Nason