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The Chosen, Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel, has been the high school reading-list introduction to Jewish life for untold thousands of students. That’s kind of funny when you consider that it focuses on conservative and Hasidic Talmudic scholars in late-’40s Brooklyn.
I went to Jewish Sunday school in Rockville, where we learned a modicum of Hebrew and some Bible stories, made holiday crafts, had guitar sing-alongs, ate a lot of bagels, showed off our pristine white painter pants, and rehashed recent episodes of Mork & Mindy. I went to High Holiday services, but we didn’t belong to a temple per se, so they were held in a Unitarian church and led by a biochemist from the N.I.H. I was bar-mitzvahed, but the ceremony was by a freelance rabbi at the Unitarian chapel next to the church, and the day was perhaps most memorable for my date’s tossing her pizza after dancing too hard to “Free Bird” at the subsequent party. In other words, when this Jew read Potok’s story of Reuven Malter, the conservative yeshiva student, and his Hasidic friend Danny Saunders, in line to lead his father’s community of several hundred Russian immigrants and their offspring, although it was about my people, it might as well have been set on the planet Ork.
I bring this up only because The Chosen has been adapted for the theater by Potok and Aaron Posner, co-founder and director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company, which performed the play two years ago. And in newspaper articles and program notes, the story is touted, despite its specificity, as dealing “with themes that are universal,” as Steven Carpenter, director of the current production at Theater J, puts it. Well, it seemed somewhat universal, I guess, to last Sunday’s matinee audience, packed with kids and seniors from various capital-area synagogues.
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But the play is also condescendingthe one nonobservant character, Jack Rose, is treated as kind of a benign simpleton, part of the dim postwar American flock awaiting enlightenment, despite his donating $1,000 toward a Zionist association and joining a temple for the benefit of his children and grandchildren. And in its slimmed-down dramatic form, the play also falsely masquerades as an ode to diversity, ending as it does with an older Reuven quoting the Talmud”Both these and those are the words of the living God”with the younger Reuven and Danny enshrined behind him through symmetrically opposed tapestrylike scrims, as if to say, “It takes all kinds.” Sure it takes all kinds, as long as they’re male Talmudic sages. That’s a rather narrow viewfinder through which to see the world’s cultural rainbow.
The novel, one of the first popular books to portray American Orthodox Judaism, didn’t have this Achilles heel, because it unspooled as a set of character studies, a learned and moving tale of fathers, sons, and the vicissitudes of friendship. It took its time. Its specificity was a rich marinade for those themes, which really are universal.
But on stage, stripped of its dozens of peripheral characters and gripping descriptions of an insulated community, the tale looks weirdly pocket-version, more an economical outreach tool than a work of art. With four charactersthe two boys and their fathersplus a mature-Reuven narrator (who pinch-hits as Jack Rose and a baseball coach), it’s like some Jewish rewrite of The Fantasticks. When the boys meet during a tense baseball game, charaded on the minimalist set of ascending-cube platforms, I even had a flashback to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
But here’s the twist. Theater J’s is a fabulously paced, wonderfully acted, technically polished, sometimes funny, and often stirring production of this slickly assured, intensely mediocre script. Like a well-managed political convention, it invites you into its world and convinces you that you’re part of it; it’s only once you leave that you may well realize not only that you aren’t, but that the people who are don’t necessarily think much of you.
Reuven is quietly pressured by his loving but insistent father, David, to use his religious knowledge to confront and change the world at largean expectation that is only doubled as news of Holocaust atrocities drifts across the Atlantic. Danny is expected to take over the leadership of the orthodox followers of his father, Reb Saunders. In an irony that works well in the book but looks pushy in the play’s scaled-down dimensions, Reuven looks toward the Jewish community, not the world at large, for his professional ambitions, and Danny wants to flee his community and explore more widespread truths through psychology. How they reach those decisionsand how their fathers react to themis the story’s main course.
Side dishes involve the two families’ opposed views toward establishing the state of Israel, though history and plot turns quickly mute that argument. And then there’s the Reb’s silence toward Danny except when discussing the Talmud, a domestic torture that resonates well in the book but seems melodramatic and unconvincing in the play, in part because all the characters jabber on so much about the meaning of silence that the theme’s intended quasimysticism becomes, instead, a little comical. “You can learn to live with the silence,” says Danny in one of many such passages. “It talks, and I can hear it….It doesn’t talkit cries.” And so on.
Eric Sutton as Reuven, the somewhat assimilated math and Talmud whiz, and Timothy Getman as Danny Saunders, the literal-minded bright light with the photographic memory, bring a convincing competitiveness and love to their friendship. The love element, in fact, is strong enough in Potok’s womanless universe that when, late in the play, Reuven tells Danny, “You should really get a girlfriend,” the viewer is torn between “No shit, Sherlock,” and “Why bother? You have each other.” Down to their affectionate shoulder punches after a reconciliation, they are lovers manqué.
As the activist-scholar David Malter, Joel Snyder makes you feel every ounce of his passion and heart-straining, self-destructive workaholic devotion. Bill Hamlin, as Reb Saunders, manages to pull off that larger-than-life role, down to the rabbi’s calculating coarseness and twisted, world-wary love for a gifted son, a love he can convey only through distant intimidation. Michael Russotto, as the narrating older Reuven, gracefully pulls the action together with a sweet and savvy retrospective forgiveness toward the fairly fanatical characters he’s recalling. One and all, down to navigating subtleties of European and Brooklyn accents, the cast is superb.
Jesse Terrill’s piano-and-clarinet-centered score, intertwining Hasidic melodies with sad, simple, Satie-like elegiac tunes, is perfectly in sync with the story. David McKeever’s sound design offers rushes of street sounds and radio broadcasts, splashed with well-timed acoustic accents such as the amped whoosh of Danny’s bat driving a fastball at Reuven’s spectacled eyes. Marianne Meadows lights Eileen E. Daly’s economical set with fine nuance, down to striped shadows to indicate the window blinds in a hospital room, the injured-eye flashes of Reuven’s nightmares there, and the elegant, golden, cloistered intimacy of Reb Saunders’ Shabbat service. And from the Hasid leader’s silk jacket to Reuven’s baseball dungarees, costumer Susan Chiang dresses an era and a neighborhood with exactness and finesse.
For all their fine efforts, though, The Chosen can’t lose its Monarch Notes dustiness and smug, explanatory talking-down. Though dressed up in modern stagecraft, it’s a period piece that looks pretty sepia-toned in the era of intifadas and gay Torah-study groups. It undermines its novelistic source by its dumbed-down pageantry and speaks to us as though we were children and Jack Roses all. CP