Who are the chosen?
The phrase traditionally refers to the Jewish people, as distinct from all other faiths and peoples. It’s an exclusionary idea, determined by a special relation to “the Master of the Universe.” Yet in The Chosen, adapted into a play by Aaron Posner from Chaim Potok’s novel and directed by Gordon Edelstein — and now playing through Dec. 17 at Long Wharf Theatre — being among “the chosen” also means making a choice.
The play interrogates how anyone in growing up chooses a path in life. While steeped in deep knowledge and experience of Jewish culture, The Chosen is ultimately a drama about conflict, between generations, between peers, and in oneself.
Reuven Malter (Max Wolkowitz), our first-person narrator of his own story, is charming, disarming, and seems a born storyteller. His tale is a dual coming-of-age story for himself and his best friend, Danny Saunders (Ben Edelman), a Hasid his age who, in the play’s tense opening scene, is Reuven’s most compelling opponent on the baseball field. They immediately hate each other. Then, after Reuven is hurt on the field, they set about trying to understand each other. This is handled with a refreshing sense of how important friendship and identity is for teenagers, without any pandering to make them laughable to elders.
The two boys’ fathers are accomplished men in two different traditions of Judaism. Rebbe Saunders (George Guidall) is a tzadik, a spiritual leader among the Hasidim who is preparing his son to inherit that crucial role in the community. David Malter (Steven Skybell) is a teacher and a proselytizer for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. There is a significant divide between their views, and the clash between the devout Hasidism and the comparatively less religious Orthodox Jews is clear from the start, thanks to that memorable baseball game.
Posner has revised the script from its earlier version, first produced in 1999, and the Long Wharf production benefits. The storytelling here is superlative, with the four main actors all extremely good and well-cast. It’s almost as if the story simply exists and these four men, aided by a mostly silent chorus playing other students and extras, are inhabiting it in front of us. The openness of the Long Wharf’s thrust stage provides great intimacy but also, in Eugene Lee’s set design, plenty of space for quick changes of setting and interesting overlaps of action. The pacing rarely flags.
The action mostly takes place in the homes of the two men, with some other areas — a baseball diamond, a hospital, a campus, Madison Square Garden — suggested with minimum fuss. The play is about the drama of personalities and the clash of values, and lets the characters present their ideological positions without ever ceasing to be fully conceived characters.
As Danny, Ben Edelman gives a fascinating performance: avoiding eye contact, hands in pockets often, he seems tense, browbeaten by his father’s towering status in the community, but when he lights up on a topic, brought out by his friendship with both Reuven and David Malter, we sense a winning personality under the surface. Steven Skybell invests David Malter with tenderness and vulnerability but also the bluster of the tireless man of ideas. And as Rebbe Saunders, George Guidall avoids the stereotypes of the wise rabbi; we see a man not easy to like or understand, and for whom the role he plays in his community has become his entire personality. Some of his best scenes are with the two young men where his treatment of his son is tempered by his graciousness to Reuven.
Ultimately, however, this is Reuven’s story, a tale of how a secular Jew finds the calling to be a spiritual figure, and Wolkowitz seems born to the role. The entire play is an illustration of the key concept of “Both These, and These,” which Reuven quotes at the opening of the play. No one here is at fault entirely, though any might be at times. And that’s an important point in Potok and Posner’s world. Ours is a fallible world and even the most righteous can fall short of the highest ideals. Each of the main characters in The Chosen is burdened with roles they must epitomize, adapt to, or replace with something else. The production at Long Wharf is a satisfying presentation of the drama of choosing among the chosen.
The Chosen runs at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargeant Dr., through Dec. 17. Click here for tickets and more information.