A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
Ms. Boyd's choice was far easier than that faced by the story's two teenagers who must choose between tradition and modernity. This adaptation is even more full of ideas than Asher Lev — probably too many for a less capable adapter and director than Posner to tackle big issues like the Holocaust, faith, Zionism and the relationships of fathers and sons.
While not completely escaping the problems inherent in dramatizing the internalized aspects of the novel, the talented Posner has managed to let the central and moving coming of age story prevail and keep the sermonizing to a minimum. What's more,even though set in a narrow Brooklyn community between 1944 and 1948, the divide between different beliefs and life styles is more than ever far reaching and pertinent.
Like My Name Is Asher Lev' The Chosen again explores the pull between the enduring virtues and satisfactions of tradition and the a less restrictive approach to dealing with personal inclinations and world events. But you don't have to be Jewish to warm to the two Jewish boys at the play's center who live five blocks but worlds apart. The changes and reconciliation their unlikely friendship seeds make this a universal story of hope for bridging the chasms between fathers' choices for their sons, modern Orthodox and strictly Hasidic Jews, Western and Eastern religions.
Like the 1981 film version with Rod Steiger and Maximillian Schell as the opposites of the faith fence fathers), the Posner-Potok adaptation begins with a baseball game that turns into a fierce battle between the assimilated high school's star pitcher, Reuven Malter (Jeff Cuttler) and the Hasidic team's fierce slugger Danny Saunders(Ben Rosenbach). Undaunted by not having the film director's ability to expand the setting to recreate an authentic outdoor baseball field, Mr. Posner has staged the pitcher-batter game with wonderfully effective simplicity.
In fact, thanks to scenic and costume designer Meghan Raham, the entire stage has been transformed into a striking scene setter to accommodate the overall action. At the rear of the stage, there's a filmic image of the Williamsburg Bridge. A double tier of book cases and just a few props establish Danny and Reuven's homes as well as several hospital scenes. It's when Danny's aggressive pitching puts Reuven in one of those hospital scenes that their friendship gets off to a tentative start.
It doesn't take long for the bond betwen the boys to deepen, especially since it turns out that Reuven's scholarly father David (Adam Heller) has met Danny in the library and introduced him to the books he hungers for — books unavailable to him as the heir to the revered Rabbi who led a group of his followers out of Russia's progroms to America).
Naturally, the all-knowing and forbidding Reb Saunders (Richard Schiff) wants to meet his son's new friend see whether to permit the friendship. He views the friendship as a threat to his plans for the son he has raised with total silence between them except when they sudy and discuss the Talmud which interprets Jewish Law. But after including Reuven in one of these Talmud session, he okays the friendship. However, this changes once the war ends and the horrible details about Holocaust intensify David Malter's zeal for Zionism which is anathema to Saunders' belief that the true Jew must accept what was and wait with him for the of the Messiah.
Though the play unfolds against this large canvas of religion, politics, war and genocide, it never really strays from the perspective of the two young men, their relationship with each other and their fathers and the new paths each decides to take a different path than that chosen for them by their fathers (Reuven as a rabbi rather instead of a math professor, Danny as a psychologist).
The five person cast delivers impassioned performances. Jeff Cuttler and Ben Rosenbach are especially affecting in depicting the unique depth of their connection, and the strains that threaten its continuance. As in My Name Is Asher Lev, Posner has used the device of an audience addressing character to set the scene and step in to narrator and explainer. Having that narrator an older version of Reuven, and a few times actually slipping into the story as another character, works quite well. And Richard Topol, who's played this role before, inhabits it quite comfortably.
As for the two fathers, Adam Heller gives a splendidly warm and intense performiance as the the loving if almost too saintly father.
The one problem performance comes from the actor who's featured with a special star listing, Richard Schiff. His Reb Saunders is way too excessively God-like go make us swallow the also loving father inevitably brought to the fore. The otherwise expert director should have reigned him in and made him heed more of the silence that he imposes on his son and that works as an overarching thematic element.
With so many topics to chew over, did we really need that Talmudic table talk about about Jewish Numerology? Still, judging from the enthusiastic audience that packed the house at the opening night I attended, even Schiff's unwarranted "featured" status won't prevent word of mouth from making this yet another triumph for this company's run of hits.