KPBS AIRDATE: September 10, 2004
1944. War was raging in Europe. And there was a Battle Royale in Brooklyn — between two sects of Orthodox Judaism. It becomes a diamond dispute, when Reuven Malter faces off against Danny Saunders in a baseball grudge-match. One of them winds up in the hospital. And thus begins a lifelong, life-changing friendship.
“The Chosen,” an adaptation of Chaim Potok’s award-winning 1967 novel, refers to the Chosen People as well as an individual’s chosen path. When the rich, complex, sprawling, original was transformed into a play in 1999, by Potok and playwright Aaron Posner, just three years before the novelist’s death, it was, of necessity, distilled and compacted. But the power and the universality remain. Above all, “The Chosen” is a gripping tale of fathers and sons.
Danny’s Dad is the esteemed Rebbe, the spiritual leader of his adoring Hasidic congregation. With his flock, he’s a brilliant communicator — but at home he’s taciturn and only talks to his son through their study of Talmud, or Jewish law. Reuven’s father is more forward-thinking, open to new ideas — including the establishment of a Jewish state — and he’s highly supportive of his son. But he has expectations, too. What makes the play so timely and relevant is that it’s about fundamentalism vs. progressivism; rigidity vs. flexibility; narrow vs. broad perspectives; seeing the world in black and white or in shades of gray. It pits unswerving devotion to the Law against compassion and the human heart. It contrasts the demands of parents with the desires of their children.
David Ellenstein, artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre, has visited the play four times before. He has his heart and soul in the piece, and such a deep, firm grasp on it that he’s created for us a sublime, transcendent production — touching, moving, even tear-jerking. His cast is outstanding. Christopher Williams is excellent as the intense, curious and conflicted Danny, and dynamic newcomer Tom Zohar is the adorably nerdy and wise young Reuven. Ralph Elias is our narrator and guide, a knowing and wistful older Reuven, Craig Huisenga makes David Malter a Jewish Ward Cleaver, a caring, low-key nice-guy — until he talks about Israel, when he fairly explodes with passion. As the Rebbe, reprising a role he’s played before, Robert Grossman is magnificent — so compelling and charismatic, I’d follow him anywhere.
The set distinguishes the two scholars’ studies, with the Willamsburgh Bridge stretched out behind them, a passageway to the world outside this cloistered little enclave. The sound, lights and costumes evoke an era which resonates with our own — a time when a little less religious dogma would go a long way; when a bit more silence and listening — crucial themes in the play — would make for better communication, over cultural, religious, familial and philosophical divides.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.