A remarkable production of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” adapted for stage w the help of Aaron Posner, is playing at Long Wharf through December 17. It is beautifully crafted, with an excellent set (Eugene Lee), precise lighting (Mark Barton), great sound design (John Gromada), and wonderful costumes (Paloma Young) and wigs (J Jared Janas); and it is directed with delicate care by Gordon Edelstein.
Reuven Malter (Max Wolkowitz) is a student at a Jewish high school in Brooklyn in 1941. He welcomes the audience with an obscure paradox from the Rabbis describing how a thing can only be this or not that, but either may be correct (!), and launches into the description of a baseball game in which his team played against another Jewish team from an Orthodox schul, where he met for the first time Danny Saunders (Ben Edelman). Near the end of the game Reuven pitched to Danny, who violently returned the ball directly at Reuven’s face, hitting him, and nearly putting out his eye.
Reuven’s father, David Malter (Steven Skybell), a prominent author, comforts Reuven, after the operation that has removed a sliver of glass from his eye, and encourages him to heal, within as on the surface, in the hospital. As he leaves, a contrite Danny visits, to apologize for having driven the ball at him. Reuven sends him away, but Danny reminds him that according to the Talmud, an apology must be accepted, and grudgingly the two make a connection, towards becoming friends. Danny admits that he wanted to hurt Reuven, to kill him, even. Now he wants him as a friend, and takes him to visit the schul where his father, Reb Saunders (George Guidall), the esteemed leader of the Hassidic settlement, teaches. Reb Saunders, whose stern discipline keeps him from speaking to his son, Danny, lectures to his students and Reuven, and then quizzes them about any mistakes he might have made in his exposition of the Torah. Danny responds, and Reuven points out a mathematical error. Reb Saunders is delighted, and agrees that Reuven, even though he is not Orthodox, may be a good friend for his son.
Meanwhile, the news from Europe tells of the awful events of the Holocaust. The two fathers in this story have very different reactions to the horror. David, obsessed with the belief that only in America is there still a Jewish presence, becomes an advocate for Zionism pressing for the opportunity for a reclaimed Jewish homeland in Palestine. Reb Saunders, who insisted that Reuven live in his home with Danny while David was in the hospital with a heart attack, now breaks apart the two boys, because he is a strong opponent of Zionism (‘cheap secular Judaism’, he says) and wants nothing more to do with the Malters.
Another year passes. Reuven has decided to become a rabbi, instead of a college professor. Danny, on the other hand, has decided not to become a rabbi, hence not to succeed his father as the head of the Hassidim community. And Reb Saunders has changed his mind, asking Reuven to come again to the schul with Danny. In an awkward moment, and with his dad’s help, Reuven realizes that Reb Saunders can only speak to Danny when Reuven is present – a third party communication – and that he must go. When he does, in Danny’s presence, Reb Saunders tells them that he already knows of Danny’s dedication to psychology, knows he will not succeed him, and knows that his silence has hurt Danny when he was trying to make him find his soul. Suddenly an embrace. The two Saunders hold each other and deep sobs create a resolution that is overwhelming.
In an afterword we learn that now Danny and his father have conversations together for the first time since Danny’s childhood. His younger brother has been tapped to lead the Hassidim. Reuven reminds us that two different opposites may both be valid and Judaism continues with Zionists and Hassidim both claiming new life.
Meanwhile within the United States a President defies the rest of the world by meddling in Israeli politics at the same time “The Chosen” is playing in New Haven. It seems like the perfect moment and I promise you that it will feel like a perfect synchronicity when you take advantage of the opportunity to see this play unfold. Tickets and information at www.longwharf.org or phone 203-787-4282.
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre December 7, 2017