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Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Boston) Adapting a novel to the stage can be a wrenching exercise. Pages upon pages of description, of scene, of setting, of theme must be boiled down to dialogue and action that can stand alone. By all accounts, Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen is considered a richly-layered and well-written story about the tension between Jewish communities, as told through the friendship of two young men who find themselves caught between the secular and religious communities at the dawn of Zionism. Unfortunately, he and co-writer Aaron Posner fail to adapt the novel to a script form, leaving in a narrator who breaks up the scenes and explains away the heartfelt tension between the characters, leaving us with a broken dialogue that tells an incomplete tale about the weight one must bear when one is called to carry the load of doing good.
Set in 1940’s Brooklyn, the play unfolds the unlikely friendship between Reuven Malter (Zachary Eisenstat), the only son of a prominent liberal Jewish writer, and Danny Saunders (Luke Murtha), the eldest son of a Hasidic rabbi who is considered the spiritual and factual leader of a band of displaced European Jews. In their own spheres, both children are expected to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, Reuven to join academia and Danny to take up a mantle akin to being a pope. At a time when the Jewish community violently recoils at the unfolding horror of the Holocaust, both young men find cause to question their preordained
paths in a friendship struck up over baseball. Their friendship presents the opportunity to wrestle with how to balance differing interpretations of faith and the demands of the world.
But the audience must work hard to steal moments of meaning from the authors, who seem to want to spoon-feed theatergoers by inserting an older version of Reuven (Charles Linshaw) to underline and explain everything transpiring. Not only is this unnecessary, as the profound dialogue and the tender and damaged relationships between the two pairs of fathers and sons speak volumes, but it confuses more than illuminates. Linshaw is a fine lecturer, but aren’t we supposed to be at a play?
This production cannot rise above the writers’ stumble, and it sometimes accentuates it. Brynna Bloomfield’s set design, a backdrop of a seemingly ancient bookshelf with projections of the Torah beamed in, fails to be a utilitarian setting for the multiple locations, a temple, an apartment, a hospital, and it instead seems to push the actors off a ledge into unfocused action. Director Daniel Gidron then sends his characters circling aimlessly about the stage with his blocking as the older Reuven drones; they often have to pull a U-turn when they run out of room in their ambles.
These flaws nearly hide some fine performances from some of the cast. Joel Colodner does a good job making an authentic character out of the Hasidic rabbi Reb Saunders when he speaks, a character which easily could have fallen into caricature under less skilled hands, but it is Saunders’ moments of brooding silence that provide the real moments of hold-your-breath theater. His counterpart, Will McGarrahan, does wisely to underplay his natural gregariousness in his portrayal of the liberal David Malter, Reuven’s father, while still allowing burning passion to seep through the dry words of the intellectual. And Luke Murtha does so much by doing little as Reb Saunders’ son, Luke, conveying a questioning soul with a keen intellect who is nearly crushed by his faith and his father’s silence.