The Chosen

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

What was it about Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen that so captivated my 9-year-old Catholic schoolboy self? There was the exotic background. World War II era Brooklyn was as foreign to me as Istanbul. There was the equally alien central pillar of Judaism which permeated every page. But, mostly, there was love. Love between Reuven and Danny. Love between the boys and their respective fathers. Love of Torah. Love of reading. Love of learning. It stirred me as no previous novel had and held me spellbound.

I find myself equally transported by the exquisite and heartfelt production of Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok’s adaptation of the novel playing at the Fountain Theatre. Under the precise and emotionally expansive direction of Simon Levy, this seemingly insular story becomes a universal paean to the values of friendship, family, and identity.

Reuven Malter (Sam Mandel) and Danny Saunders (Dor Gvirtsman) have grown up 5 blocks away from each other but have never met. They live in different worlds. Danny’s father, Reb Saunders (Alan Blumenfeld), is a charismatic Hasidic tzaddik. Danny is being groomed to take his place. Reuven is devout, but his Modern Orthodox upbringing is close to heretical in Danny’s eyes.

The boys meet during a fateful baseball game in which Danny wounds Reuven. From this inauspicious beginning, the boys form a special friendship which will resonate deeply in both their lives.

Reb Saunders is raising Danny in “Silence.” He speaks to him only in religious discussions. Danny’s restless and brilliant mind has driven him to the public library where Reuven’s father, David Malter (Jonathan Arkin), gives the boy reading lists which quickly take him from Dostoyevsky to Freud.

The end of the war brings brief elation followed by the horrifying revelation of the concentration camps. The post-war years also bring a new energy to Zionism and the idea of a Jewish homeland in Israel. David is a leader in the American Zionist movement. This pushes Reb Saunders too far, and he forbids Danny to see or speak to Reuven. Suddenly the boys are also living in “Silence.”

Posner’s recent revision of the script tightens the focus to the two boys and their fathers. This minimizes the background color of the neighborhood and, especially, the omnipresence of the War. But it greatly enhances the intimacy, as well as the emotional connection to the characters.

The performances are all superb. Mandel’s gravel-voiced Reuven is a straightforward Brooklynite who narrates in a convincingly authentic accent. But he also digs beneath the surface to reveal Reuven’s fears and disappointments. Gvirtsman’s otherworldly Danny is all febrile intellect and frustration when we meet him. His thirst for intellectual stimulation and his unconscious yearning for normalcy are soothed by his relationship with Reuven and his father. Gvirtsman ably navigates Danny’s growth from awkward adolescent to an assured young man who will break tradition to make his own decisions.

Reb Saunders is the play’s showiest role and whether exalting with his congregation, denouncing Zionism, or arguing scripture, Blumenfeld’s performance is appropriately monumental. But he carefully grounds every moment in reality. Watch his devastation at the news of the Holocaust. It is Lear-like in its intensity. Arkin’s hard-working David Malter is built on a subtler frame, but his quiet compassion is just as powerful and, perhaps, even more important to the boys. He always has time for a kind word or carefully considered advice, and his love for both boys provides a safe harbor for Danny and Reuven in troubled times.

The show has been extended and is adding an extra performance night, so you have no excuse to miss this exceptional production. But bring a handkerchief.

Fountain Theatre    January 20 – May 14, 2018