With ‘The Chosen,’ TheatreWorks’ latest production tackles large issues, including the Holocaust, faith, and Zionism. Not bad for a Saturday night. As stage entertainment, however, it delivers mixed results.
On the one hand, intensity and poignancy abound as two teenage boys and their fathers search for their place in a changing world for Jews. The Tanakh anchors their beliefs and provides optimism.
Dialog, though, often comes in long-winded, introspective and esoteric monologues (sermons) that slow the momentum, and at one point almost derails the play.
The story follows two teenagers, Danny Saunders (Thomas Gorrebeeck) and Reuven Malter (Jonathan Bock), who end up friends despite their initial adversity on a baseball field in Brooklyn.
Their fathers (Traveling Jewish Theatre co-founder Corey Fischer, and Rolf Saxon), see great futures in their sons, but differ in their approach to parenting and their interpretation of the Jewish faith (Hasidic vs. Orthodox).
“Silence is golden.”
The eventual bonds the boys form as they attend school, discuss the Tanakh and walk the streets of New York, ultimately remove communicative barriers with their fathers.
‘The Chosen’ opens with a wonderful baseball scene that results in an eye injury and hospital stay for young pitcher Reuven. The narrator, older Reuven (Michael Navarra), sets up the story, recounting his memories and at times passionately involving himself in the recollections.
The five person cast is impressive and all deliver fine performances, with nary a hitch. Corey Fischer commands the stage, even in silence. His delivery is bold truth, uncloaked, from the soul. Michael Navarra at times reminded me of Barzin Akhavan in The Kite Runner; his enthusiasm bubbling over with disbelief, wonder and love.
For the Jewish people, this play may indeed be a triumph. I’m not sure, it’s not for me to judge.
Unlike ‘Yellowface’ which played last month, ‘The Chosen’—despite story-lines of friendship and family— is far less accessible. The former, arguably lighter material, felt fresher, moved brisker, and satisfied at end.
“This life is like a vestibule for the next world.”
This production is based on the classic 1967 novel by Chaim Potok of the same name—the first book from a major publisher to portray Orthodox Judaism in the United States. On stage the material sometimes trips over itself in an effort to capture the essence of challenging, profound subject matter.
The set delivers an authentic Brooklyn street feeling, with the interiors of two homes, five blocks apart, elevated on each side. Subtle projection effects accentuate scenes, at one point descending us into a rousing rally with tens of thousands of protesters.
‘The Chosen’ succeeds in delivering a sermon-rich story with complex, deep characters who prove hope and faith can prevail. I just wish the second act would interweave some of the light-hearted joy we experience earlier in the play—it would help maintain the entertainment factor, and make long passages more digestible.
- Aaron Posner is co-founder and former Artistic Director of the Arden Theatre Company, and the current Artistic Director of Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey
- Corey Fischer, from an interview in the Palo Alto Daily News: “There’s a great Jewish tradition of arguing with God, going back to Abraham saying ‘Don’t destroy Sodom,’ you know, ‘there’s got to be somebody good there.’ It’s all dialogue, all interactive.”
- The adaptation premiered in 1999 and has since been performed in more than 40 professional productions
- The book The Chose was a sensational success and is now frequently required reading in schools; it has been adapted as a film (1981), a Broadway musical (1988), and a play (1999)
- That beard: Ouch! Corey Fischer’s beard was originally hair extensions that could be used permanently for the run of the show, however, it was so uncomfortable he couldn’t sleep; they switched to an elaborate wig instead which takes longer to prepare for each show
- The narrator Michael Navarra is friends with Barzhin Akahavan who also plays the lead narration role in The Kite Runner (premiered earlier this year at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, now playing at Arizona Theatre Company); he sent me the message below on Facebook
A CLASSIC TALE OF FAMILY AND FRIENDSHIP
By Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok
Based on the novel by Chaim Potok
Tickets: $24 (student) – $62
October 7–November 1, 2009
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts