Heller Theatre's production of The Chosen, directed by Julie Tattershall, tells a quietly moving story of young friendship and of the bond between son and father.
The Chosen, based on the novel by Chaim Potok and adapted for the stage by Potok and Aaron Posner, examines the blooming friendship of two young Jewish boys in New York during the Second World War. Reuven Malter (Alex Coury) lives alone with his father, David Malter (Ron Friedberg), and has successfully assimilated into American culture.
On the other hand, Danny Saunders (August Luc) and his father, Reb Saunders (Tom Berenson), have not assimilated; they are Hasidic Jews. Reb, like most Hasidic Jews, places great emphasis on isolationism and Talmudic study.
When young Reuven and Danny meet for the first time, on opposing baseball teams, they hate each other, due in part to their unfamiliarity with each other's worlds and attitudes. But while Reuven only wants to strike out the strange Hasidic Danny Saunders, Danny wants to kill Reuven.
After clocking Reuven with a line drive, Danny visits his opponent in the hospital to apologize, and to confess his murderous impulse.
The intense, earnest Danny makes a strong impression on Reuven and forgives him. From that moment, they are fast friends, even though Danny's father generally disapproves of friendships outside their Hasidic circle. Reb requests a meeting with his son's new friend and submits Reuven to a surprise test. When the boy passes with flying colors, Reb approves of him and welcomes him into their circle with open arms.
The play's climax approaches as Germany surrenders to the Allied forces and news of the six million murdered Jews leaks into their lives. David Malter and his son become Zionists, convinced that God will only help those who help themselves. Reb considers Zionism a grave blasphemy and orders Danny to break off contact with his best friend, forever.
As a human drama, The Chosen relies very little on spectacle. There are no dramatic revelations and only one or two emotional explosions. Human interaction moves the plot along, and therefore each little moment the actors play sets the production's pace. In other words, The Chosen is not so much a play about things that happen, but about how these characters act and react to each other.
The narrator, an aged, present-day Reuven Malter (Adrian Alexander), evidences this interpretation of the play. His sober and steady narration tidy up exposition and transport us between key moments in these characters' lives.
Alexander's narration also doubles as a refrain, a familiar voice and cadence between each scene. These refrains, combined with Tattershall's fluid staging, whisk us from location to location. Alexander does experience some minor stumbles throughout, however, and should brush up on some of the text.
The actors listen to each other well, a key skill for any actor but even more so in a play about silence, or more precisely a play about the importance of listening to others' suffering. Especially enjoyable are Reb's sermon, the quiz that he springs on Reuven, and the climactic scene in which Reb confesses to Danny (through Reuven) the reasons behind his years-long silence.
Berenson delivers a solid performance throughout the production as the sharp, shrewd and patriarchal rabbi. From the moment he begins his first sermon, it is clear why Danny and Reuven both are so intimidated by him. He has a commanding presence, tempered by a distant and formal warmth, a warmth that he can sap with a single, steely glance. He speaks in dialect, yet is perfectly clear. His refusal to succumb to maudlin antics in his final scene is a boon to his fellow actors, who take full advantage of his subtle, composed confession. It is a quiet, yet powerful scene.
The two young actors, Coury and Luc, demonstrate much potential. The rough patches in their performances are learning opportunities.
Coury, as young Reuven, demonstrates keen and serious attentiveness, which works well for this role. Less helpful is his tendency to carry tension in his neck, which causes vocal fray. When Reuven explodes, as any teenager is wont to do, Coury's tension stymies the emotion in his voice, which limits his emotional availability.
Luc, as Danny Saunders, leads from his forehead. (Imagine a string attached to his brow, pulling him along.) Because of this posture, he also carries tension in his neck and experiences some vocal fray. Unlike Coury, however, who tends to push his voice through the tension, Luc cuts off his voice at the end of his lines, dropping them. Many of his lines' final words are mouthed instead of spoken. He needs to follow through the end of the line, landing it and the intention behind the line on his acting partners.
I also would have liked to see Danny's posture change during the play. In the beginning, it makes sense for the character to lead from the brow; Danny is a studious, cerebral young man. By the end of the play, however, he has discovered his zeal for his fellow humans and wants nothing more than to help them. If, at his point, Luc were to lead from his core, Danny's emotional transformation would be more believable.
I had difficulty with a few of Tattershall's staging choices. When David rehearses his speech for the Madison Square Garden rally, Tattershall elevates Friedberg and casts much light on him. This choice is serviceable, as Friedberg delivers the speech with honest and spontaneous emotion, but a more interesting choice might have been to dim David's area of the stage and bring up more light on Reuven, who watches his father with awe for the first time in his life. It is a transformative moment for Reuven and a more important moment than David's speech; this is, after all, Reuven's story.
I did like Erin Scarberry's set design, especially its emphasis on two separate areas of the stage where nearly all the action plays out. This choice emphasizes the chasm between two vastly different worlds which Reuven inhabits- the Hasidic world and his own assimilated and worldly home.
I had a little trouble with the set's paint job, though. The stone walls turn the stage into a dungeon. This is a bit much even for the Hasidic home, which is a solid, serious and cloistered space, and is far too heavy for the Malter home, which should be a light, warm and welcoming place.
The light sources on the stones' surface have been painted from several directions, and the wall includes too much mortar between the stones, making it seem two-dimensional.
These are minor quibbles. The set design and staging work very well for the rest of the play. The only major difficulty presents itself during the unconvincing baseball pantomime early in the play, where the set leaves little room for a believable baseball diamond. This difficulty passes and is soon forgotten.
Frank Gallagher's lighting design is subtle and fluid.
My only major reservation about this play is an extra-textual one. During a discussion of Zionism, David argues that, in the wake of the Holocaust, Jews should stand "united against common enemies." Because he is discussing the Jewish claim to Israel, it is clear that by "enemies" he means not only Nazis and other anti-Semites but Palestinians in particular.
When David made this argument, I spotted several people nodding in the crowd and found it unsettling that, in the midst of a play about learning to hear each other's pain, someone would be able to assent to violence and hatred. Perhaps I have misinterpreted those nods. I hope so. The Chosen bears a powerful message about the advantages of empathetic silence. It would be a shame to have it go unheard.
The Chosen plays August 7-9 at the Tulsa PAC. Visit tulsapac.com for more information.
If this play doesn't sound like your thing, there's plenty more to do in Tulsa this weekend. The Nightingale Theater presents a one-night-only performance of "An Evening with Mark Twain" with Mark Sutton on Friday, August 8. Visit www.nightingaletheater.com or call 633-8666 for more info.
Footloose is running at the Tulsa PAC right now, August 7-9. You can visit tulsapac.com for more info on that one.
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