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Ben Edelman as Danny Saunders in The Chosen at Long Wharf Theatre. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson )
Stephen Skybell as David Malter and Max Wolkowitz as Reuven Malter in The Chosen at Long Wharf Theatre. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson )
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Two teenage boys on rival school teams meet on a baseball diamond and after one slams the other in the eye with a ball, practically blinding him, a relationship that begins in competition and controversy blossoms into a lasting friendship.
It’s a universal American theme and yet it is very specific to time, place, and religion. And that’s what makes Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s best-selling 1967 novel The Chosen—now playing at Long Wharf Theatre—still fresh and relevant on many levels.
The theater’s artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, evenly and sensitively directs the play, which originally premiered in 1999 and has been newly revised for the Long Wharf production. The action takes place in 1940s Williamsburg, Brooklyn at a historically significant time: it is the end of World War II, the horrors of the Holocaust are just coming to light, President Roosevelt has just died, and the creation of the state of Israel is underway.
The teenage boys are both Jewish but from diverse backgrounds. Danny Saunders (Ben Edelman) attends a Hasidic yeshiva and is son to Reb Saunders (George Guidall), a deeply religious patriarch of the Hasidic community.
Reuven Malter (Max Wolkowitz), who is also the story’s narrator, attends a Modern Orthodox yeshiva, and is the son of David Malter (Steven Skybell), who despite being an Orthodox Jewish scholar and teacher is controversial in the Hasidic community for his support of Zionism and questioning of the status quo.
Posner, who had adapted another of Potok’s (later) works, My Name is Asher Lev, for the Long Wharf Stage in 2012, also directed by Edelstein, distilled down the more than dozen characters in the novel The Chosen, to focus solely on relationships between the two fathers and two sons. Four additional actors play “the students” but in non-speaking, peripheral roles.
The young actors, Edelman and Wolkowitz, give superb performances—both in their debut at Long Wharf. As Danny, Edelman is earnest and focused with the goofiness of an adolescent. One feels his pain in the shadows of a humorless, rigidly religious father, who raises him in silence, only talking to him when discussing the Talmud.
As Reuven, Wolkowitz is spot-on as the likable, easygoing, conscientious son and student, sobered by his father’s increasing health issues. His complicated relationship with Danny makes him more deeply examine and question his own understanding of the world.
Both trapped in various ways in the roles, expectations, and contradictions of their fathers and society, they eventually end up trading places—Reuven choosing to become a rabbi instead of a professor, and Danny discarding his Hassidic garb to enter the modern world and follow his dream of studying psychology.
As the father, Guidall gives a powerful performance as Reb Saunders, a more complex man than he appears to be at first, revealing late in the play that his reason for raising Danny in silence isn’t cruelty, but to teach him a lesson in compassion.
Skybell’s performance as David Malter is equally multi-faceted—his love for Reuven and for the causes he believes in are heartfelt; his passion for an Israeli state only equaled only by Saunders’s vehement opposition to it.
Although one can likely identify with a number of the play’s themes without being Jewish or living in 1940s Brooklyn, as a woman I found the lack of any female characters both strange and limiting.
Most of Potok’s novels lack female perspective—he was once quoted as saying that by writing about women he was afraid of “discovering feminine sensibilities” inside himself. Danny’s mother is alive, but invisible, and we learn that Reuven’s mother died soon after he was born, but the one colorful female character in the novel, Manya, the loving Russian housekeeper who helped raise Danny along with his father, was eliminated from this adaptation.
Eugene Lee’s earth-toned, book-cluttered set is complimented by Mark Barton’s warm, subdued lighting. Paloma Young’s costumes along with J. Jared Janas’s wig and hair design reflect the conflict between Old World and New World values.
The Chosen runs two hours with one intermission, Performances continue through Sunday, Dec. 17 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. For tickets, call the box office at 203-787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.
Amy J. Barry has been writing about Connecticut professional theater for more than 25 years. She is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. (ctcritics.org).
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