“The Chosen” is Revised and Remarkable at Long Wharf Theatre
The Long Wharf Theatre production of “The Chosen,” directed by Gordon Edelstein and running through December 17, is nothing short of astonishing. This story of two young boys befriending each other and growing together into young men is a testament to the power of maturity, and the play you will see (for you must see it) reflects that power.
Twenty-five years ago, Aaron Posner collaborated with Chaim Potok, author of the 1967 novel, to create this drama. Now Posner, having developed into a sophisticated and much-produced playwright, has substantially revised the piece specifically for The Long Wharf. I have seen, and liked, the original version, but the revision is infinitely sharper and more moving: the work of a seasoned mind and man.
“The Chosen,” set in Brooklyn in the 1940’s, tells a story that is at once simple and exceptionally complex. This is appropriate, since its theme is that of honoring and respecting two opposing ideas at one time: “Both These and These are the words of the living God,” Rabbi Reuven Malter (Max Wolkowitz), invites us to consider as he begins his memory play. From there, he takes us back to his youth and a baseball game in which at team of youthful Hasidic Jews set out to destroy the “apikorsim”: Yiddish for Jews who are less observant and thus not proper Jews at all, like Reuven.
Danny Saunders (Ben Edelman) is the fiercest of the Hasidim, and in the first of many paradoxes, his ferocity ignites a fight, then a conversation, and finally a deep friendship, with young Reuven. Over the course of Reuven’s story, we also meet the boys’ respective fathers. David Malter (Steven Skybell) is warm, loving, talkative, and—as the action moves through WWII and beyond—a passionate Zionist.
Reb Saunders (George Guidall), who years earlier led his followers out of Europe to America, and who is treated as something close to a deity, raises Danny (unlike the rest of his family) in mysterious and, for Danny, agonizing silence. He also views Zionism as a movement that will destroy Judaism, as he defines the faith.
Clearly, this play contains numerous binary elements, but Edelstein brilliantly sidesteps the easy trap of staging the production as if a jump rope divided the space. Instead, he keeps the simple, burnished tables and chairs (Eugene Lee designed the spare, perfect set) always at interesting angles, reminding us subtly throughout the evening that “both These and These are the words of the living God.”
Edelstein has also assembled one of the finest casts that has ever graced the Long Wharf stage. Max Wolkowitz slips easily between the young and the mature Reuven, and he is alternately charming and intense when called upon to be the concerned son, the perplexed and worried friend, and our guide into what he himself terms “a foreign land”: the Hasidic community.
As Reb Saunders, leader of that community, the magnificent George Guidall captures a man whose fervent dedication to his community and to his beliefs makes him frightening and poignant at the same time: both these and these, once again. Ben Edelman’s Danny is heartbreaking in his bent posture; his delicate, jittery fingers; and his bowed head. At the same time, Edelman shows the flashes of steel that make this young man brilliant and unique.
Steve Skybell, as Reuven’s father, David Malter, exudes kindness, empathy, and wisdom; if he is a bit too good to be true at times, that reflects the idealizing quality of a son’s memory. His passionate zeal, when it fully emerges, is plenty frightening, in its way.
A marvelous production team supports these actors. In addition to Lee’s set, Mark Baron’s lighting design and John Gromada’s delicately precise sound design guide and illuminate (in all senses) the script. Paloma Young’s costumes and J. Jared Jonas’s hair and wig design clarify the characters’ inner lives and outer roles; this is essential always, but perhaps especially in “The Chosen.”
Like all plays that take us into another world, the world—the worlds—of “The Chosen” educate us about that which might be foreign, and invite us to look more closely at our own familiar lives. We owe this production not only admiration, but also gratitude.
“The Chosen” runs through December 17th at Long Wharf Theatre. For tickets or more information, call 203-787-4282 of got to www.ongwharf.org