Picture it: a ballfield in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1944. On one side are modern orthodox Jews in softball attire — baseball caps, undershirts, sneakers, short pants. On the other is a team of Hasidic students in formalwear, button-down shirts, black pants, yarmulkes, and the dangling sidecurls known as payot. At the center of the field are the son of noted Zionist writer David Malter, Reuven Malter, pitcher for the modern orthodox team, and Daniel Saunders, the son of the Reb Saunders, the spiritual leader of the Hasidic sect. Young Reuven throws the ball. Danny has that evil look in his eyes. He swings. The ball hits Reuven in the face, shattering his glasses and injuring his eye.
Thus begins the unlikely friendship at the heart of The Chosen, Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok's stage adaptation of Potok's classic novel, running on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at Barrington Stage Company through August 3. Perhaps the script, first performed in 1999, relies too heavily on long swaths of first-person narration (a similar problem that exists in Posner's recent stage adaptation of Potok's My Name is Asher Lev), but it's easily forgiven in this engaging production, sensitively directed by the author.
Reuven (Jeff Cuttler) and Danny (Ben Rosenbach) are in desperate in need of friends, and soon the teenagers hit it off. Danny, especially, needs someone with whom he can talk; despite a fierce devotion to his spiritual leader father (Richard Schiff), the pair communicates through silence, an idea that Reuven, raised by a talkative workhorse of a dad (Adam Heller), just doesn't understand.
A distinct lack of understanding pervades the lives of all the characters except the older Reuven (Richard Topol), who guides the audience through the play's four years with the benefit of hindsight. The drama comes to a head when the fiercely intelligent Danny confides in Reuven that he doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps as the community's next Tzadik (a position of leadership passed down the blood line); instead, he wants to become a psychologist. It's at that moment that unlikely recognition blooms, coming from the last person they'd expect. When this climactic moment is reached, multiple audience members at a recent performance broke the tension of a long silence with the word "Wow."
On a large, looming library of a set designed by Meghan Raham (who also styled the costumes), The Chosen has as much suspense as the very best action movies. The five actors make the dialogue sing like the most beautiful prayer on the High Holy Days. The young actors, Cuttler and Rosenbach, more than hold their own opposite heavyweights like the gruff and passionate Heller, the affable Topol, and Schiff, perhaps best of all and completely unrecognizable under a scraggily gray beard designed by Charles G. LaPointe. All of these characters are complicated individuals and none of the actors take the easy way out or delve into stereotype.
With My Name is Asher Lev ending its run off-Broadway at the beginning of September, this production of The Chosen seems like the natural choice to take its spot at the Westside Theatre. It's very deserving.