Faith & Character: An Interview with Max Wolkowitz of Long Wharf’s “The Chosen”

Noah Golden 

In Long Wharf’s upcoming “The Chosen,” based on the novel by Chaim Potok, two Jewish boys in the 1940s form an unlikely friendship. While this is the world premiere of Gary Posner’s stage adaptation, it’s a return to the stories of Potok for actor Max Wolkowitz, who plays the show’s narrator Reuven. Two years ago, he played the title character in “My Name Is Asher Lev,” another play by Posner adapted from a Potok novel in New York. After what he called a “beautiful” and “challenging” experience at the Penguin Rep Theatre, Wolkowitz says he is happy to make his Long Wharf debut and once again inhabit a teenage Chaim Potok protagonist.

Wolkowitz grew up in Westchester, New York and “has been acting all his life in some degree.” Local and high school shows led to Wolkowitz pursing a BA in theater from Bennington College followed by a Masters at the Brown/Trinity MFA program. Besides “Asher Lev,” Wolkowitz has been seen in numerous New York, regional and touring shows including “Love, Sex and Death In The Amazon” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” When not on stage, he works as a freelance graphics animator.

To learn more about the “exciting” rehearsal process for “The Chosen,” I spoke to Wolkowitz on the phone. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is "The Chosen" about?

MW: It's about these two boys: Reuven, who I play, and Danny. They live just a few blocks from each other but in totally separate worlds. Reuven is an Orthodox Jew but living in the world and studying all sorts of things. Danny is a Hasidic Jew, so he's cloistered off in a very tight-knit, isolated community. These two boys meet in a Jewish league baseball game and Danny ends up smacking a ball right into Reuven's face. That's the beginning of an unlikely friendship. It's about their growth and development from boys into men. The other two characters in the play are their fathers. My character, Reuven, has a very close, loving relationship with his father David and Danny has a very strained, still loving but tense relationship with his father.

What drew you to this show?

MW: I come from a family of Brooklyn Jews, so the setting definitely feels like a cultural memory that I can empathize with and associate with. My family was not nearly as observant as the characters in this play, but there is something about Jewish culture. There's a shared history that is deeply felt because it's a relatively small community within the country and the world. So, there's a real desire to hang on to what cultural history we have.

Does your Jewish background help you to tap into this character?

MW: Absolutely. Not that someone who isn't Jewish couldn't genuinely play this part. But certainly, in the room it makes the work faster because there's a shorthand. There's an understanding of the language, the slang, the point of reference. Knowing a little Yiddish and all of that. It just makes it easier to work faster and go deeper.

How do you approach a script like this?

MW: I've played a number of characters younger than myself. In a way, I try not to think of it as playing someone younger. There's a lot of traps in that approach. You can start to play a stereotype of a kid. Really, I think the only distinction between how adults behave in the world and how kids behave is how much they know. So, it's not so much about playing someone younger as it is about playing someone with less experience.

What has it been like working with this cast?

MW: It's been fantastic! I think all four of us have very different energies and working styles. We approach the work differently, which I think is really exciting. That makes some really dynamic work happen. Ben [Edelman], who's playing Danny, is really great. He's incredibly focused and enthusiastic. Steven Skybell who plays my father is so emotionally connected and diligent. He's an incredibly generous scene partner. And then George Guidall is a legend. He really brings it. Yesterday, we were working on a scene and he brought so much of himself to the character that I barely had to do anything. I just had to respond and it was right there.

What are you hoping audiences will get out of "The Chosen?"

MW: I think the theme of the show is that two things can be true at once. A lot of the play is about these two very different people seeing each other, hearing each other's points of views. If there's anything audiences can take away from this play is to listen and be compassionate and open to the possibility that we don't know. That maybe somebody else does. Maybe we disagree and that's OK.

“The Chosen” runs November 22-December 17 at Long Wharf Theatre.