The Chosenby Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok, based on the novel by Chaim Potok. Directed by Aaron Posner.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Listen behind the words."
Here we go again with the memory play. Ever since Tennessee Williams wrote "The Glass Menagerie" we have been inundated by memory plays, plays with a narrator, plays that toss the main character’s past at us as though a play about their present could not exist until we had all the facts. Or almost all the facts because the memory play represents one character’s point of view, one character’s memory of the events. "The Chosen" at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA is one of those plays and who is to say that if the story was presented by a different character, the story would have been very different.
Richard Topol plays Reuven Malter, the older version, whose memories of his journey from high school to college, from 1944 to 1948, are suddenly in need of reexamination. With no justification for this need to look again at his past, the play ignores that pre-requisite and simply moves forward to look backward. That there is nothing to stop this gesture toward his character’s boyhood, Topol takes full charge of the situation and begins his narration of the events. He does it extremely well and his role allows him to move in and out of other characters, too insignificant to be cast with another actor. Again, Topol’s playing is flawless. Boys appear: Reuven the younger version and Danny, or Daniel, Saunders. Men appear: fathers of the two boys. The stage is set for a memory play and so we get one.
Potok has a good story to tell through this memory play. Simply, the story concerns the unlikely friendship of Reuven and Danny whose fathers are a Zionist and Hasidic Rabbi. Danny is a fierce young Hasid who father has raised him with silence; Reuven is a Jewish Conservative in every way, a 1940's modern New York Jew. Living five blocks apart in Williamsburg, Brooklyn their unlikely union affects their futures. Reb Saunders is a leader of his flock in every way possible, religious, political, social. David Malter is a molder of minds also, but in a very different way; he is a writer and an educator and leader of the movement to establish a Palestinian State for his Jewish brethren. The Malters are dreamers and the Saunders are pragmatists. Reb Saunders sees things only as they are while David Malter imagines things as different, progressive and ever-changing.
It is in how the younger generation approaches these ideals and ideas that the play is set. Jeff Cutler plays young Reuven Malter. Cutler has so much charm and so much poise in this role that Reuven emerges as a most promising figure. There is no hesitation in him, even at moments when decisions are being forged. He gives Reuven the sense of certainty, even when he betrays a trust or is faced with life-altering situations. His rather handsome face is most expressive and it would seem that there is never a moment when a thought isn’t altering his appearance a bit. I was impressed with the humanity he brought to this almost stock role.
His counterpart, Danny Saunders is played here by Ben Rosenbach who pulls off the best human transition of the week (Pygmalion dominated last week, but like Eliza Doolittle Danny has a major change in the works). As directed and played and even written, I suppose, Danny is the character that Topol’s elder Reuven is remembering. Their changed circumstances would most likely keep them apart as adults, but their friendship is played beautifully and sensitively by Rosenbach and Cutler. Rosenbach has the more difficult part in this tight central rotating ball of a plot. He has to use rigidity of principle as the wall off which to bounce his handball. He squares this take every time and never misses a return. There is something hardcore in his performance; Danny is always in the forefront and never the actor playing him. I never for a moment doubted the reality in front of my eyes.
It is the two fathers who make this play a quagmire. Richard Schiff as Reb Saunders is a far distance from playing any reality that I can grasp. His accent is thick and troublesome, doesn’t define a region as its source and never seems real, but only representative of an entire class of people who spoke only of the "old country" and never of Poland or Armenia or Russia or anywhere one can locate. His appearance is a transformation, shocking almost as he presents New York Hasidic master, someone to shy away from in the street. What Schiff presents well is the ardent behavior, the enthusiasm of a cultist and the emotional force of a wailing wall attendee. He is often hard to understand (that accent again) and even harder to appreciate as his character holds on to the old ways of his people. We should feel his pain and we don’t. We should sympathize with his anguish over the extinguishing of 6 million European Jews, but we can’t for his grief is isolating and we cannot be included in his sense of ruin.
Adam Heller as David Malter is easier to get along with, but even he has problems. His Brooklyn Jewishness is more boyish than manly. There is a distancing here as well as he never, until a Madison Square Garden speech that is very memorable in this actor’s hands, gets truly close to his maturing son. There is nothing wrong with Heller’s interpretation of the role, but yet it doesn’t give us much other than a portrait of a man whose needs continually separate him from his only child and from us at the same time.
Perhaps distancing is the practical item in a memory play of this sort, one that only comes from the narrator’s point of view. Perhaps Reuven has never understood his father and can only present what has seemed real to him and perhaps in the construction of this play this is what the author’s were going for. Perhaps, but I don’t believe it. These four characters all need to be as genuine and real as Rosenbach’s Danny is, all the time. But that does not seem to be what is in this script.
The physical production, open and broad and revealing, is a brilliant realization of this play. Meghan Raham’s setting for the show provides a simultaneous series of interiors while leaving us with the sense that place is everything and that what takes place is incidental. This goes with the writing very well. Tyler Micoleau does a fine job lighting the play and its outer context. Raham’s costumes are perfect for each character although a third sweater vest for Reuven would have helped us move through time. Charles G. Lapointe gets kudos for his wigs and hair. This play would not have been as real as it is without his work. James Sugg uses sound as though this was a movie or television special.
Aaron Posner, collaborator on the script and director, has been too close to the material to see what might be necessary to make this a perfect evening of theater. He has brought out some of the emotions and so reactions to key points elicit tears and key into audience memories in a very effective way. He hasn’t managed to bring four characters into total focus and the play loses some of its grip and power in those moments where monologue takes over the drama. There is powerful work on this stage. There are those points where tears are definitely in the offing, but the episodic elements of memory are what drive this show forward and not the growth of characters.
So much good work is on display in "The Chosen." That it isn’t everything it could be is a problem, but what is good is good. This tale of "two bodies with one soul" takes us on a journey like no other and it should be a journey taken in spite of its flaws, for its assets are in the return to a time and place that we never visit on our own. A heritage is at stake and a new generation of people should reach out and embrace it; this is a starting point.
Asam Heller, Richard Topol, Jeff Cutler, Ben Rosenbach; photo: Scott Barrow
Richard Schiff; photo: Scott Barrow
Jeff cutler, Richard Schiff, Ben Rosenbach; photo: Scott Barrow
The Chosen plays on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at Barrington Stage Company’s Union Street Theater in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through August 3. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.