Theater Review | Heartfelt ‘The Chosen’ will get audiences thinking
Play methodically examines two sides of Judaism
Published: Friday, November 2, 2012
Updated: Friday, November 2, 2012 08:11
“A word is worth one coin. Silence is worth two.” So begins “The Chosen,” a production that, despite the above line, deserves much more than one word. At the Lyric Stage Company in Boston, Daniel Gidron directs this 1999 play that Chaim Potok and Aaron Posner faithfully adapted from Potok’s 1967 novel.
“The Chosen” is a thought−provoking and spiritually satisfying performance that takes its audience back to 1944 Brooklyn, to the heart of religiously charged Williamsburg and to the hearts of two sons and their fathers. The two Jewish teenagers, Reuven Malter (Zachary Eisenstat) and Danny Saunders (Luke Murtha), live five blocks apart, but are a world away from each other: they differ starkly in appearance, demeanor, lifestyle and religion.
But while Danny is Hasidic and Reuven is “just” Jewish, the two soon become friends. They learn to speak to each other, but more importantly, they learn to listen. Their initial emotional connection is a powerful surprise, and as it drives their personal growth over the next four years, the audience experiences their respective conflicts and revelations firsthand.
The play is an expression of two juxtaposed worlds, and on the stage, the charms of each are always visible.
Historically accurate costumes highlight the contrasting sets of characters. Danny’s traditional, black Hasidic suit and the earlocks dangling in ringlets from his yarmulke are easily distinguishable from Reuven’s less−conservative polo shirt. The set is consistent for the entirety of the play, with each father−son pair claiming a desk and chair on opposite corners of the diamond−shaped stage. A Romanesque window shape in the background alludes to the tablet of Moses.
The authority associated with fatherhood — in respect to both religion and household — is a constant source of conflict within and between the families. The stage is well−suited for such developments as the two main points of focus are directly opposite one another. Though a minimalist setting, the stage does not need much to complement the constantly moving dialogue; the characters themselves, through expressive body language and genuine speech, are the source of the plot’s invigoration and development.
The script is intellectual and deeply spiritual, but the frequent Talmud references are coupled with the arrogant attitude and clever quips typical of defiant teenagers. The actors very believably convey their characters and their humor, which allows even the least religiously aware viewer to appreciate the Jewish references throughout the show. Through the narration of the adult Reuven — who speaks the opening line — the audience is privy to not only the present but also to Reuven’s emotional, yet refreshingly witty commentary on his younger years.
“Our little Sunday game was now a full−fledged holy war,” he remarks, referring to the baseball game between the rival synagogues’ teams. This is the same place where Danny and Reuven have their first “pleasant meeting” when Danny hits Reuven’s eye with his baseball bat. It takes much more than a simple apology for the young men to see eye−to−eye, but by the end of their discussion the two are intrigued rather than threatened by one another. With passionate recollection, adult Reuven affirms this revelatory moment.
After his eye heals, he remembers, “Everything seemed sharpened and pulsing with life.” That sentiment will describe the audience’s sensory experience, as well. “The Chosen” is full of emotionally charged and intellectually stimulating scenes. Danny and Reuven challenge expectations, their fathers and each other.
As Danny and Reuven learn, so does the audience, through both the characters and the wisdom of Freud, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Talmud. The script is primarily dialogue between friends and sets of fathers and sons, but it is far from monotonous. Dramatic changes in lighting and musical interludes — whether they are the soft strum of a harp or a cacophonous rhythm — highlight moments of tense frustration and surreal revelation.
Many individual instances are especially memorable, and something different will likely resonate with every audience member, but everyone will witness the extraordinary story of two young men coming of age, as a portrait of duty versus choice is intimately unveiled over the course of the show.