Review: 'The Chosen' at the Long Wharf Theatre

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

“These and these are the words of the Living God.” -the Talmud
“All profound things… are preceded and attended by silence.” – Herman Melville

Long Wharf Theatre brings us Chaim Potok’s coming-of-age novel, The Chosen, adapted for the stage by the author and Aaron Posner. While coming-of-age stories are nothing new, this piece presents a distinct setting: two young Jewish men growing up parallel lives at the end of World War II that intersect and then diverge. It is also a story about father-son bonds; unlikely friendships; value conflict; and the overcoming of things that divide us.

Reuven Malter (Max Wolkowitz) and Danny Saunders (Ben Edelman) – who grow up 5 blocks from one another in 1940s Brooklyn without ever meeting – become friends through an accident at a baseball game. Reuven is the son of David Malter (Steven Skybell), a scholarly man who passionately believes in Zionism, the concept of the re-establishment of the Jewish people in Israel, their rightful homeland. Danny is the son of revered Rabbi Reb Saunders (George Guidall), who led his persecuted Hasidic followers out of Russia to the safety of the United States, where they could practice their ultra-Orthodox form of Judaism freely. Reuven and Danny are windows into each other’s worlds: Reuven is perplexed by the Hasidic teachings and the deity-like status of Danny’s father. Reuven is also fascinated by Danny’s impeccable mind, which absorbs every piece of information and retains it, almost a machine. Danny longs for the scholarly, secular freedom that Reuven has: to be able to read and study the things that Reuven does; Danny reads Dostoyevsky and Freud only in secret. Most of all, Reuven’s loving relationship with his father, David, is one any young man would envy. Unfortunately, Reb and Danny’s relationship is almost nonexistent; Reb almost never speaks to his eldest son, for reasons that are unknown to Danny, except during Talmud lessons. But when life crises and the Holocaust become realities, it pushes both Reuven and Danny to reveal truths to their fathers, with surprisingly emotional results.  

You need strong performances to carry a show with only four actors, and these men provide excellent performances. Mr. Wolkowitz’s Reuven serves as the story’s narrator with warmth and authenticity. Mr. Edelman’s Danny by contrast is constrained and awkward; he cannot look you in the eye when speaking to you. But Mr. Edelman’s performance is special in that there are subtle flashes of empathy which progress throughout and at the end of the play, demonstrating a true, transformative arc for Danny. Mr. Skybell is marvelous as the fervent, wise David, and Mr. Guidall plays the complex Hasidic leader, Reb, with a resilient, intimidating presence.  In one of the final scenes, it is Mr. Guidall’s performance that makes me suddenly burst into tears; his ability to be so tender and penitent in that moment really touched me.

Set design by Eugene Lee evokes the feeling of masculine study rooms and libraries from early half of the 20th century, with its wooden built-in shelving and molding. The underlying current of contradictions existing simultaneously runs through this play; having the two households side-by-side helped to emphasize that theme. I thought the baseball scene with the netting was genius; I’m still not sure where those baseballs came from. And speaking of those baseball hits, kudos to sound designer, John Gromada, for nailing each crack of the bat, and for more subtle sound effects like ticking clocks in the Saunders household, enhancing the restrained atmosphere.

Like many novel adaptations for stage, elements tend to be rushed or glossed over. For example, I felt Reuven and Danny’s friendship developed too quickly, especially given its seemingly violent beginning, but I understand that there’s only so much that can happen in two hours. Despite that, I do recommend seeing this play: I think it’s a poignant piece that helps to remind us that our differences are not insurmountable, and one just might learn something about one another in the process.      

Photo: T. Charles Erickson