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Theater review: Emotions of play ‘The ‘Chosen’ survive intrusive narrator

Wednesday, July 24, 2013
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— The substance of “The Chosen,” an adaptation by author Chaim Potok and Aaron Posner of Potok’s 1967 novel, kept me both intellectually and emotionally involved, especially in Act II, but the structure of the play often vitiated its impact.

The writers have compromised one of theater’s unique dictates — showing — by telling, with a narrator who plays the grown-up Reuven Malter and other characters. After a short period of time, I began to dread his reappearance. There are instances when he says something that a character then performs, when the character’s performing it would have sufficed. Furthermore, the narrator rambles on about historical events covering the period 1944-48.

The breaking of the fourth wall in, say, “Our Town” or “The Glass Menagerie” works; here, it doesn’t.

'The Chosen'

WHERE: Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Mass.

WHEN: Through Aug. 3

HOW MUCH: $58-$20

MORE INFO: 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org

But there are many aspects of the play and the production that are successful, prompting laughter and tears — mine included. The story concerns the teenage years of Reuven Malter (Jeff Cuttler), an Orthodox Jew growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. His widowed father, David (Adam Heller), is a teacher at the local yeshiva; studying the Talmud together is a favorite pastime.

During a baseball game, Reuven meets the intense and intriguing Daniel Saunders (Ben Rosenbach), a son of Reb Saunders (Richard Schiff). Saunders, a Hasidic rabbi, is a great Torah scholar, but whether or not he is a good father to Danny is open to interpretation.

As the play progresses, the two boys develop a friendship, trying to bridge the gulf between their respective religious traditions, and to determine their life’s work. It is not an easy task, particularly when the two powerful fathers react to the aftermath of World War II and a prospective Jewish state in radically different ways.

The resolution to the boys’ problems comes in a couple of dramatic — and poignantly ironic — concluding scenes.

The play is performed on a set of outsized bookcases (emblematic of the scholarship that informs the lives of the households) by Meghan Raham. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design and James Sugg’s soundscape subtly underscore the action and shifts in locale.

Under Aaron Posner’s direction, the five actors perform with passion. Richard Topol throws himself into the narrator’s role and delivers the text as energetically as possible. Heller makes Malter the ideal dad, someone who can dispense wisdom (“The span of a life is nothing, but the man who lives may be something if he fills his life with meaning”) and kiss his son.

Cuttler credibly makes the Young Reuven a straight-arrow with a brain, a heart, and coming-of-age questions. Rosenbach reveals Danny’s conundrum: how to respect a man who hurts him as a father. It’s a psychologically risky place to be, and Rosenbach captures Danny’s pain and bravado.

Behind a long beard, payos and an intense focus on the religious text before him, Schiff masterfully displays the power and pathos of Reb Saunders, a man tormented by an austere upbringing that he replicates with Danny. The arc of Schiff’s performance is large and convincing.

If the structure of the play was a deterrent to my complete enjoyment of it, Sunday’s crowd had no such reservations: a standing O. And there is certainly a lot to admire.

 
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