Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
The Fountain Theatre
Through March 25
Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen was a best seller when it came out in 1967, and it remains a staple of middle school reading lists to this day. It’s the story of two Jewish boys living in Brooklyn in the 1940s: Reuven, raised by his gentle widowed dad as an observant orthodox Jew, and Daniel, whose exacting father is a Hassidic rabbi who shuns all things secular and plans for his son to follow in his footsteps. Playwright Aaron Posner adapted it, in collaboration with the novelist, in the late 1990s, but has since done some revisions. His newer version receives a classy mounting at the Fountain Theatre under Simon Levy’s direction, although on opening night the performances were not yet where they might be, with a notable exception.
The story is told, in flashback, by Reuven, portrayed by Sam Mandel with the same sweet ingenuousness as the character of Eugene in Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (You would have thought they were cousins). Reuven meets his future friend Daniel (Dor Gvirtsman) when they play baseball on opposing teams, and Daniel, batting, whacks the ball and hits Reuven in the eye. The boys go on to build a friendship, and Reuven for the first time is invited into a Hassidic household and exposed to their culture, with its non-secular values and exclusive preoccupation with prayer.
Reuven’s dad, David Malter (Jonathan Arkin), is a Zionist who writes about Jewish matters, including the Talmud, so its study has been part of Reuven’s life also. But that hasn’t excluded other interests, like mathematics or literature. Also, whereas David is a humanist, whose talks with his son turn on the nature of friendship, clear thinking, and moral choices, his counterpart, Daniel’s father Reb Saunders (Alan Blumenfeld), is a stern patriarch, who literally never speaks to his son unless he’s instructing him on a passage in the Mishnah.
The narrative proceeds as a coming of age story, with emphasis on Reuven’s gaining of wisdom under the guiding hand of his parent, and Daniel’s struggle to break from family tradition and become what he wants to be — a psychologist and member of the world community at large instead of the tsaddik (a spiritual leader of his people) that his father expects him to be. At times the boys are separated by Reb Saunders’ raging biases; when he hears that Malter is advocating for the state of Israel, a no-no within his belief system, he bans Reuven from their home.
The Chosen is very much about fathers and sons; it depicts a circumscribed world in which women and non-Jews and secular Jews conspicuously play no part. That’s bothersome. On the other hand, its characters are all good people, striving for an ethical life. That’s a consoling motif in our current world, where callousness and chicanery seem to find new ways to triumph daily.
In this production, Arkin delivers the outstanding performance; it’s a subtle endearing portrayal of a wise and caring man. Mandel, making his live stage debut, is appealing and aptly cast, but he plays pretty much the same youthfully artless note from lights up to curtain. His character needs to grow, from the inside, as does Gvirtsman’s Daniel. As Reb Saunders, the veteran Blumenfeld, a mighty talent at his best, hasn’t freed himself entirely from character cliché and schmaltz. (This was on opening night, so we have hopes going forward.)
Under Levy’ s direction, the production moves fluidly, with the action shifting gracefully on the small proscenium. Peter Bayne’s sound design can be a bit heavy-handed, but the set (DeAnne Millais) and lighting (Donny Jackson) admirably befit the play.
Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, Hollywood; Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 5 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m., through March 25; (323) 663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com. Running time: two hours and five minutes with an intermission.