By Brooks Appelbaum
The Chosen, adapted from Chaim Potok’s novel of the same name, is being given a largely strong production at Hartford’s Playhouse on Park through February 14. Set in Brooklyn during the 1940’s, The Chosen concerns characters whose backgrounds are intriguingly unfamiliar to most. David Malter and his teenage son, Reuven, are forward-looking Orthodox Jews, while Rebbe Saunders and his son, Daniel, are Hasidic: one of the most deeply observant sects of Jewish Orthodoxy. Reuven and Daniel’s meeting becomes a means of exploring the universal themes associated with coming of age and a specifically explosive time in modern Judaism: the revelations of the Holocaust and the resulting Zionist movement.
By keeping the story focused on the relationships between the two boys and their respective fathers, Potok and his adaptor, Aaron Posner, avoid the abstract or esoteric, creating instead a warm, strongly felt story. Posner has given us a guide—Reuven as an adult (David Gautschy) -- who explains traditions, translates Hebrew and Yiddish, and provides exposition where necessary. This elder Reuven, as written, is meant to draw us into the play.
Unfortunately, in a cast of five actors who carry the two-hour show, director Dawn Loveland has miscast and misdirected Gautschy as this elder Reuven. Rather than portraying a wise, grave, thoughtful man with occasional moments of irony or twinkle, Gautschy has been asked to find humor wherever he can. Moreover, his suave manner and graceful, slight build make it difficult to connect him with young Reuven (Jordan Wolfe) and in fact to connect him with this particular play at all. To be exact, Gautschy belongs in a musical: he seems ready to break into a very mainstream American song and dance at any moment.
Where the other four actors are concerned, however, Loveland has made marvelous casting and directing choices. Wolfe, as young Reuven, has a magnetizing presence, but he is simultaneously natural and authentic. As Daniel Saunders, Joshua Whitson, too, has remarkable charisma, and down to the nervous movements of his fingers, he conveys the complex layers of this constrained young boy’s life.
As David Malter, Dan Shor nicely captures the character’s passion, dedication, and openly loving nature. If he seems, at times, a father too good to be true, as a memory play The Chosen requires this subtly idealized quality. Finally, Damien Buzzerio, as Reb Saunders, is nothing less than a marvel. His performance transcends acting: it’s impossible to believe that a performer is behind this fully realized person, although in retrospect, one sees that the role demands an astonishing amount of sheer technique, in addition to depth of conviction.
Loveland and Scenic Designer Christopher Hoyt make graceful use of the relatively small playing space. The backdrop, in particular, is lovely in its evocation of two separate (and at times, violently opposing) intellectual, emotional, and spiritual worlds; however, one can only fully appreciate its design from the front section.
The music needs adjustment. Joel Abbott is the Sound Designer, but the director has made the ultimate choices, and where Klezmer music or Russian folk music would be far more evocative of these characters’ cultural heritage, we hear these only too rarely. Most of the time, 1940’s American popular tunes cover the blackouts. This music limits the depth of the play and seems more befitting to an entertainment than to the depiction of people caught in relationships governed by conflict, difficulty, and change.
Kate Bunce’s costumes, though, perfectly convey each character’s place in his social and religious world as well as his emotional landscape. And Arron Hochheiser’s lighting design contributes to the smooth flow of a script written in short scenes punctuated by blackouts.
Though the themes are somber, The Chosen is not meant to be a primarily dark story. For the most part, Loveland and her marvelous cast succeed in unveiling the mysteries of harsh, hurtful constraint to reveal elemental love.
Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford through February 14. For more information, visit www.playhouseonpark.org or call (860) 523-5900 x10.