Can two objects exist in the same space? Nature says no, and yet…? Can two opposing ideas both be true? Logic says no, and yet…? Can there be both this and that? We are uncomfortable with the possibility, and yet this is what “The Chosen,” a play by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok, based on Potok’s novel of the same name, wrestles with in a very strong production currently on the boards at Long Wharf Theatre. This tightly written play, deftly directed by Gordon Edelstein, deals with multiple ideas but never loses sight that ideas are generated by human beings who, as they ideate, also feel, hurt and must confront the confusions that life presents.
Set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, near the end of WW II and following, the play focuses on two families, both motherless. There’s the Malter family, David (Steven Skybell), a writer and Zionist and his son Reuven (Max Wolkowitz), hoping to become a college professor, and the Saunders family, Reb Saunders (George Guidall), a tzaddik, leader of a Hasidic sect, and his son, Danny (Ben Edelman), destined to take his father’s place within the tight-knit community. The families, though they live only five blocks apart, do not interact until there is a baseball game between a team of intense Hasidic young men and Reuven’s team of more casual Jews. Late in the game, Reuven is pitching and Danny is at bat. Danny hits a ball back at Reuven. The ball hits Reuven in the head, smashing his glasses and wounding one of his eyes. Following this, Danny visits Reuven in the hospital seeking a form of forgiveness and thus a tentative friendship begins between two young men who are complete opposites.
Beyond the religious differences between the two families, there is how Reuven and Danny have been raised. Reuven’s relationship with his father is warm and extremely verbal, while Danny lives essentially in a world of silence, his father speaking to him only when they are studying the Talmud. Danny tells his father that he has met Reuven and that they have become friends, and Reb Saunders allows the friendship, which will become the heart of the play as the two young men seek their place in life, Israel struggles to be born and two distinct and divergent views of Yiddishkeit confront each other.
“The Chosen” is a play of both ideas and emotions, and one of its primary strengths is that Posner and Potek have interwoven the two so that beliefs and emotions, often conflicting, must exist in the same space. It makes for often compelling moments.
With the aid of set designer Eugene Lee, and supported by subtle yet evocative lighting overseen by Mark Barton, Edelstein utilizes the Theatre’s thrust stage to great effect, often blocking his actors to emphasize the divide between the two families. His job is made all the easier by the strength of the four actors playing the primary roles.
Wolkowitz, who is charged with providing the narration that knits the scenes together, is entirely believable as a young man on the brink of adulthood who must find a moral center in a world that often seems to be composed of irreconcilable opposites. Equally engaging is Edelman as the alienated son, though one might have wished Edelstein had allowed the actor not to be locked into a submissive, Uriah Heep posture throughout the play – there were moments, especially in the plays denouement, when Danny should have stood a bit taller than he was allowed to.
Then there are the two fathers, and Skybell and Guidall create contrasting portraits of fatherhood that are, each in its own way, exceptionally effective, though it is Guidall who comes close to stealing the show, especially with his second-act monologue that evokes the tenderness he has hidden and the reason for his silence with the son. As Danny rushes into his father’s arms there was more than one hand in the audience raised to wipe away a tear.
“The Chosen” may be, at moments, a bit long on polemics, but it delivers a satisfying emotional arc, bolstered by dialogue that never fails to engage. One true benchmark of a play is whether or not you care about what happens to the characters, and this production of “The Chosen” allows you to develop emotional ties with all four primary characters, so much so that the two hours you are in the theater seem to fly by.
“The Chosen” runs through December 17. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.