Reuven and Danny spend their childhoods living five blocks apart, but only meet for the first time as teenagers when a contentious baseball game ends with one of them in the hospital. This sets the scene for The Chosen, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok based on Potok’s 1967 novel of the same name. While the play has been performed for the last twenty years, this past weekend’s opening at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles marks the west coast premiere of a new, streamlined version that reduces the number of actors by one, amongst other changes.
Set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn during World War II, The Chosen is a tale of two young Jewish men who, despite sharing a religion, culture, and neighborhood, are seemingly worlds apart. Danny (Dor Gvirtsman) was raised Hasidic and Reuven (Sam Mandel) Modern Orthodox; Reuven’s family strongly supports Zionism, and Danny’s does not. At home, Reuven and his father, David (Jonathan Arkin), a scholar and teacher, have frequent, deep conversations and a strong, clear bond. Meanwhile, Danny’s relationship with his father, Reb Saunders (Alan Blumenfeld) is one of literal silence. Reb Saunders is a respected Rebbe in the Hasidic community, and he intentionally speaks to his son only about religion.
When Danny visits Reuven in the hospital after accidentally injuring him in the baseball game, the interaction is bizarre at first, but Danny’s deep longing for meaningful human interaction quickly becomes clear. Danny is deeply curious about many things considered forbidden by his religion. He is particularly fascinated by the writings of Freud, and makes use of his photographic memory while reading any book he can get his hands on. Reuven has a gift for mathematics, but not a passion to go along with it. Both fathers expect their sons will one day follow in their exact footsteps, but as is often the case with teenagers, this turns out to be what neither son actually wants. Eventually, both boys attend the same college, but as World War II ends and the debate surrounding Zionism becomes a major point of contention in the Jewish community, their fathers’ differing opinions threaten their friendship.
The experiences depicted in The Chosen are very specific ones, and as a young, non-Jewish woman who not raised in the 1940s, I found it difficult to connect to on a detailed level. Part of the feeling of specificity comes from the story containing only male characters and focusing on relationships that feel uniquely father and son rather than parent and child. That being said, when you look at the play on a more broad level, the general themes—friendship, communication, forming your own identity separate from familial expectations—are far more universal. It is a story of young men who are searching for something they can’t quite define, and what it means to come of age when the world around you is more tumultuous than ever.
Reuven also serves as narrator, which is one of the changes for this streamlined adaptation—in previous productions, a fifth actor played an older Reuben and narrated the story. The change works just fine and helps keep the production more intimate and focused. The set depicts two detailed homes, both full of books, one on each side of the stage. While this creates a nice backdrop and emphasizes the point of two nearby households that are simultaneously alike and different, it is not very versatile or applicable to the numerous scenes that take place outside the homes. Simon Levy’s direction still finds ways to make use of the space, using emphasized lighting and sound effects to bring the feeling of a baseball game to life even in front of bookcases.
The performances are solid, with Gvirtsman in particular bringing a lot of depth to Danny, who has the most satisfying and complete character arc. In his stage debut, Mandel overacts a bit in scenes where he’s narrating, but plays nicely off the other actors in more intimate moments. Arkin and Blumenfeld are larger than life as the family patriarchs, giving the entire production a sense of gravitas. Ultimately, The Chosen is a nicely produced snapshot of a specific human experience. Even if it does not mirror your own, there is something to be learned about the moment in time in depicts.
The Chosen runs at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood through March 25th. Performances are Mondays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. The running time is two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $35, with $20 tickets for students and as rush, subject to availability, 15 minutes prior to each performance. Monday nights are pay-what-you-want. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.