Several weeks ago, I read Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “The Promise” and, somewhat to my surprise, found them to be not only a good read, but very moving. I knew, of course, the “The Chosen” had been dramatized both on the stage and in film (I have not seen the film), and that Theater J was staging “The Chosen” not in its usual venue but at the Arena Stage in Southwest Washington. I wondered what I would think of the play, since I thought so much of the book. I was afraid I would be disappointed.
“The Chosen” is the story of two precocious adolescent boys in Brooklyn of the 1950s, and their two fathers. Both families are Jewish, and orthodox, and observant. But one is what today would be called “Modern Orthodox”, and the other Chasidic. What’s more, each of the fathers is a very distinguished leader: one a Chasidic tsaddik, a leader of his particular sect, and the other a renowned scholar of Talmud, who believes that texts should be read in historical context and, in fact, can be changed if need be to make sense of what is being said (the thought being that original text had become corrupted over time). To the Chasid, this is sacrilege.
The boys meet, of all places, on a baseball field, where each is the star player on his respective team. In other words, Orthodox Judaism (or immigrants in general): meet the USA. The game becomes more of a game; it is as if the winner of this game will have proven that God looks upon him, and all he does, with favor. The game ends when Daniel, the young Chasid, hits Reuven’s pitch right into Reuven’s face, and Reuven is taken to the hospital.
Then things get complicated – it turns out that Daniel, a young man with a photographic memory and unbounded curiosity, is not really a Chasid at heart – he is more interested in psychology and other secular subjects. Expected to take his father’s place (his father represents the sixth generation of family leadership of his Chasidic sect), Daniel has been exploring the rest of the world secretly, at the public library. And in his pursuit of more secular studies, he is guided by a scholar who works at the same library, Reuven’s father (of course, unbeknown to Reuven). Reuven, on the other hand, an extremely gifted student of mathematics, becomes more and more attracted to the rabbinate.
Reuven and Daniel, two boys from very different worlds, become best friends, a friendship that is tested over time by the conflicts between these two worlds throughout the course of the play.
The five actor cast is extraordinary. Local Washington stars Rick Foucheux and Edward Gero play the two fathers – each fully believably. Aaron Davidman, who recently performed his own one man show “Wrestling Jerusalem” at Theater J, played the older Reuven, acted as the first person narrator of the show, and Joshua Morgan and Derek Kahn Thompson played the two high school (and then college age) boys. None could be faulted at anything.
At the Arena, “The Chosen” is staged in the theater-in-the-round Fichandler Theater, and very effectively. “The Chosen” plays through March 27. Each performance has almost 700 seats to fill – based on the Thursday night crowd, they are doing a good job filling them – but my guess is that there were 100+ that were empty.
There is, of course, another question. Do you have to be Jewish to enjoy “The Chosen”? I think the answer is ‘no, but clearly you would come at it from a very different place. Most of the people that I have spoken to about the play are, in fact, Jewish. I would love to hear how others view it.
I highly recommend you you see the play, and read both books – “The Chosen” and the sequel, “The Promise”, which watches the two boys reach adulthood.