The conflict that first manifests in The Chosen—Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel, first presented in 1999 and now crisply restaged in glorious 3D in Arena’s in-the-round Fichandler Stage—is not religious versus secular, but Orthodox versus Hasidic—that is, super-deluxe ultra-Orthodox. Reuven and Danny, each 15 when they meet on a Brooklyn baseball diamond in 1944, are both Jews, but Danny was born into a fundamentalist sect as mysterious to his fast friend as Reuven’s own, less ascetic Judaism might seem to the sons of Irish and Italian immigrants growing up elsewhere in New York City. Danny is ravenous for knowledge, defying his influential father, Rabbi Saunders, by reading forbidden texts—Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, even Freud. When Danny presents Reuven for his father’s blessing—a prerequisite for their bro-dom, in his severe household—the rabbi takes an unexpected interest, making Reuven a part of his “A Boy Named Sue” parenting strategy.
As the Allied victory in Europe brings the horrific revelation of the Holocast, Reuven’s father becomes a prominent Zionist, a position Rabbi Saunders condemns “because it is better to live in a land of true goyim than to live in a land of Jewish goyim!” In his view, only the messiah can re-establish the Jewish homeland, and any human attempt is blasphemy. So a religious difference that was once, to an onlooker at least, merely a matter of degree hardens into the same rift that divides Evangelicals and non-believers: How do people trying to build a sanctuary in this world get along with those waiting for the next?
Stakes don’t go any higher, as The Chosen wisely keeps its focus on the friendship between the boys and their vastly different relationships with fathers. While a scene in Act 1 that introduces us to Rabbi Saunders (Rick Foucheux, as brilliantly unrecognizable as ever) goes on longer than it ought, there’s little fault to be found in this warm, beautifully acted production. Scenic designer James Kronzer efficiently denotes indoor and outdoor scenes using tall, narrow window frames that descend from the ceiling.
Posner cleanly divides the role of Reuven among two fine actors: Derek Kahn Thompson as the younger iteration, and Aaron Davidman as the adult, who narrates while gliding easily in and out of other minor roles. Joshua Morgan, half of the very funny comic duo Assembly Required, is every bit as strong playing it arrow-straight as the soulful Danny, but it’s Davidman who gets the line that echoes loudest in the Fichandler’s sea of faces: “We weep alone. We laugh alone. We’re all alone.”