Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Chosen

Play House’s ‘THE CHOSEN’—a thought provoking, near perfect production

On stage, at the start of ‘THE CHOSEN,’ now being performed at the Cleveland Play House, are two desks, each in its own pool of light. A volume of the same book lies on each desk. Two scholars scan the books. Though they live but five blocks away, they live in different worlds and the wisdom and insights they gain from reading THE TALMUD (the book of rabbinic commentary pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history) is also totally different.

Set in 1944, writers Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok use the strife between opposing Jewish viewpoints of the Orthodox (adherent Jews) and the Hasidim (those who maintain the highest standard of religious observance) to probe into the social issues of communication, friendship and education. The script also displays a political underbelly, probing into the controversy of the founding of Israel, the Holocaust and the role of modern thinking

Danny is the son of Reb Saunders, a Hasidic rabbi. Reuven comes from a more liberal Jewish family. The two find friction, and then common ground through baseball and a shared fervor for scholarship and debate. They struggle to reconcile their fathers honed beliefs and find their own paths, separate from those that their elders envision for them.

The concept of silence permeates the goings-on. From the very first word of the play ("Silence"), ‘THE CHOSEN’ explores the difficulties, and eloquence, and blessedness of silence. Danny tells Reuven that "you can listen to silence; it talks to you… sometimes it cries." These are the lessons taught to him by what appears to be a distant father. On the other hand, Reuven's abba (father) has taught him to "learn to listen behind the words, to that which is not spoken." And, in the end, Reb Saunders teaches both boys that "the heart speaks through silence."

Potok’s book ‘THE CHOSEN’ was published in 1967. It was made into a movie starring Robby Benson and Rod Steiger in 1981. The play script was first performed in 1999. A musical version had an abbreviated eight performance run off-Broadway in 1988. Potok, who wrote ‘THE PROMISE’ as a sequel to ‘THE CHOSEN,’ died in 2002.

The CPH production, under the keen eye of director Seth Gordon, is near perfection. Local actor, George Roth gives a sensitive, nuanced and intelligent performance as David Malter. Adam Richman, as the adult Reuven Malter, the play’s narrator, involves the audience with his comfortable and direct manner. Jeremy Rishe makes Young Reuven live. He has a real and natural manner that breathes honest life into the role. Andrew Pastides takes Danny from a rigid and stiff youth through his journey to awareness with introspective understanding.

Though he inhabits the character of Reb Saunders, Kenneth Albers fails to produce the cadence, rhythm and texture of speech and gestures that permeated the communication of older Jewish men who came from eastern Europe. It is a physical and verbal sound that I heard over and over from my grandfather and his friends. It created them, it was them. It gave them "taam," their flavor and essence. Albers was missing that “taam.” I’m not sure those unfamiliar with those sounds and mannerisms will know that they should have been present, but for those who are aware, it will make a difference.

Michael Lincoln’s lighting design and James Swonger’s sound design added dimension to the production. Michael Raiford’s set was practical and impressive though the overuse of candles which dropped from “heaven” became a bit much after a while.

Capsule judgement: ‘THE CHOSEN’ is a must see production. Don’t be afraid that if you are not Jewish, you will be lost in the language or the philosophy. The script explains all and Gordon has paced the production so the ideas come through with clarity. (The program does an excellent job of defining terms and concepts…get there early enough to read it.)