Star rating: ☆☆☆ ½ out of four stars
Chaim Potok’s The Chosen is a classic novel about fathers, sons, and the dreams and expectations one generation has for the next. A new production of the book—adapted and directed by Aaron Posner as part of Theater J’s collaboration with Arena Stage—explores what happens when the sons discover worlds their fathers never knew and dare to dream their own dreams.
The story is set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the middle of World War II. Two rival Jewish schools are playing each other in baseball. Pitcher Reuven Malter (Derek Kahn Thompson) faces batter Danny Saunders (Joshua Morgan), a player known for hitting straight at the pitcher’s mound. When Danny finally hits the ball, he sends it into Reuven’s eye. When Danny comes to the hospital to apologize, the boys form an unlikely friendship.
Why so unlikely? Danny’s father, Reb Saunders (Rick Foucheux) is the tzaddick, the spiritual leader of a Hasidic sect that considers even observant Jews as heretics. Reuven’s father, David (Ed Gero), is a writer and a Zionist. The creation of a secular Jewish state is anathema to the Hasidic community.
Danny’s future is predetermined—he is “the chosen,” meant to follow his father as the tzaddick. Reuven has options. Both boys grow up in households dedicated to study. But Reb Saunders doesn’t speak to his son unless it’s to discuss passages from the holy books. The silence drives Danny inward to the spiritual exploration his father hopes to inspire in him. But it also drives him outward to explore the literature and ideas of the wider world his father distrusts and despises.
The fathers are played by two of Washington’s most accomplished actors. Both do a fine job. Gero has the easier task. Foucheux’s Reb Saunders expresses himself only on the pulpit. So does Aaron Davidson, who plays the older Reuven, the de facto narrator throughout.
But the pros are often blown away by the two young actors playing Danny and young Reuven. Morgan is brilliant as the passionate young Danny, torn between intellectual curiosity and religious loyalty. Thompson is his perfect foil, the all-American boy baffled by Danny’s world and questioning his own destiny.
The Chosen is wonderfully evocative of a time and place, but the strength of Potok’s work lies in its universality. The Hasidim and the other Jews in Brooklyn in the 1940s could be the Sunnis and the Shiites today. And the conflicts between generations—particularly generations bridging chasms between an old country and a new one—aren’t limited by culture or geography. But writer/director Aaron Posner wisely retains the pure ethnicity of Potok’s piece with evocative music, period costumes, and authentic accents. The action is slow at times, but it’s hard to ask characters arguing the fine points of scripture to pick up the pace.
The only problem for me was the theater itself. This is an intimate story, and the Fichandler Theater at Arena Stage feels too vast for it. Theater in the round is challenging for any director. Posner doesn’t quite master it. There are whole scenes where we see only the back of an actor’s head. It made me long for the intimacy of Theatre J’s home stage.
That said, I urge Washington audiences to choose The Chosen. It was a wonderful play with amazing performances by young men who will be stars.
The Chosen is at Arena Stage through March 27. Tickets ($60) are available at Arena Stage’s Web site.