“More than one thing, The Talmud seems to be telling us, can be true at the same time. Quite a challenging idea, isn’t it? Are we capable of conceiving of more than one truth a time?”
Thus begins Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok’s prosaic, narration-heavy stage adaptation of Potok’s novel, “The Chosen” at Long Wharf Theater. Similar to Tevye’s “on the one hand / on the other hand” in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the paradox is typical, especially to those who study the often hidden meanings of Jewish law.
On the one hand, “The Chosen” is a story about friendship between two young boys; on the other hand, it’s a metaphorical conflict between tradition and modernization. Reuven’s father is David Malter, a warm, more secular Jew than Reuven’s friend Danny’s father, Reb Saunders, who is strict, cold and uncommunicative. Both love their sons, in their own way.
First meeting at a baseball game, Reuven, his team’s pitcher, is on the receiving end of a line drive that Danny slams into his eye. Partly vengeance against what Danny labels an apikors (i.e. non-Hasidic) Jew, it’s also partly a product of Danny’s recessive personality that has to release itself somehow. The boys’ relationship obviously doesn’t start well. But Danny visits Reuven in the hospital, asking forgiveness, which is eventually granted, and the friendship is sealed.
From here, a back-and-forth between the Malter and Saunders families evolves, filtered through a rivalry between the fathers’ beliefs. On the one hand, Reuven’s scholarly, fun-loving father is given to aphorisms like “People are not always what they seem to be” and “True friends are like two bodies with one soul.” On the other hand, Danny’s dad, a revered rabbi, somewhat cryptically believes “everyone should talk in silence.”
But this is also a play about growing up. As the boys mature, they develop their own ideas, their own hopes for themselves which don’t always jibe with those of their fathers. (There are no moms in sight.) Following diverging paths to God, the fathers watch heir sons mature in ways strange and unexpected. Reuven, a math whiz, becomes more interested in religion, while Danny opens himself to Freud, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky and Darwin.
Hovering over all is the question of a Jewish state, which Reb Saunders fears would be too secular. “He would far rather have no Jewish State then a non-religious Jewish State,” says Danny. But Reuven’s father sees it differently. As Reuven says, “passionate Zionists, like my father, saw a Jewish Nation in Palestine as the only hope for a devastated and embattled people.”
“The Chosen” takes on additional, more trenchant meanings. If Reuven and Danny’s friendship can be both religious and secular, by extension can Israel be both theocracy and democracy? Here are conflicting one hand / other hand ideas that might just be irreconcilable.
“The Chosen” is content with a wordy, awkward style in which literary narration replaces dramatic action. Sounding more like a Talmudic session in which students argue over the meaning of a single word or phrase, “The Chosen” chooses loquaciousness over confrontation. It’s significant that the antagonistic fathers never meet and we’re left with expository speech-making and polemic statements.
Director Gordon Edelstein, determined to inject life into this work, comes up with a range of flexible and graceful movements that free the actors. As Danny, Ben Edelman progresses believably from hangdog teen to open, embracing adult. As Reuven, Max Wolkowitz has the unenviable assignment of boldly narrating too much of the plot but does so convincingly, acting with a sweet-natured intensity.
As Reb Saunders, a man who led his followers from Russia to America, George Guidall is dignified yet as towering as a terrifying Old Testament prophet, but with a heart. As David Malter, Steven Skybell is wonderful, sympathetic and honest, filling the character with the kind of beliefs that, in a quiet way, can move mountains.
Eugene Lee’s setting of two neighboring homes in 1944 Williamsburg doesn’t distinguish between them, perhaps to show they’re not significantly different. In a work about “on the one hand / on the other hand,” a work that champions coming together and reaching out across a divide, differences are mutable. In “The Chosen,” extremes meet in the middle. Trouble is, the middle is bland, literal and lacking in dramatic conflict.