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The Chosen - Theatre Review
By Bill Garry
Sam Mandel, Dor Gvirtsman, Alan Blumenfeld
Photo by Ed Krieger
The first thought I had while watching "The Chosen," now playing until March 25 at the Fountain Theatre, was "How did they get such authentic New York Jews?" For the Fountain has cast four superb actors in their adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel about Jewish families in 1940's Brooklyn. On the theater's intimate stage, I was convinced that I was watching their own stories in their own living rooms.
The play concerns two sets of fathers and sons, from different parts of the Jewish spectrum, and their co-dependent relationship with each other. The Saunders family is Hasidic and occupies a sheltered world centered around Torah (the five books of the Jewish bible) -- no movies, no modern fashion, books or psychology. The Malters are Modern Orthodox and navigate the modern world through a strict (they would say superior) moral and intellectual lens.
As the world moves to war, the sons move from high school to college and deal with issues political, familial, and hormonal. Despite the weighty topics, the show provides plenty of laughs as the two boys challenge each other, their fathers and their faith.
The core of the show is the relationship between the Hasidic father -- a rabbi and leader of his religious sect -- and his son, confronting the modern world and its temptations. Reb Saunders raises his son with strict and stifling, rabbinical theories. Danny Saunders suffers with bigger dreams than his father will allow.
While the show sometimes devolves into Talmudic lectures (The Talmud is the historic source of Jewish law and interpretation), the conflict between rabbi and son is the constant undercurrent that moves the story along.
Dor Gvirtsman is Danny, the rabbi's complex -- intellectual, immature, anxious, angry and bewildered -- son. Seemingly plucked from the streets of Borough Park, Brooklyn, Mr. Gvirtsman holds the attention and sympathies of the audience in his hand. Believe it or not, he is a native Californian who works in sitcoms. Watch for him.
Alan Blumenfeld is Reb Saunders, a man so well-educated and confident in his ability to lead his community that he seems blind to his own son's suffering. Mr. Blumenfeld inhabits the character with larger than life gusto, yet teases us with interior pain of his own. Suffice to say, the actor lets his New York bloodline show.
The Malter family is Modern Orthodox, with a different view of religion and parenting. David, a teacher and political activist, and son Reuven, go head-to-head with the strict interpretations of their Hasidic friends.
Sam Mandel is Reuven Malter, who plays the role of guide to both Danny and the audience. He breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses us, filling us in on Talmud, Torah, and local gossip with easy leadership. When he turns inward, we see a kid struggling to reconcile what he sees with how he feels. Mr. Mandel's deftly walks the fence between observer and participant. The actor is a native Los Angelino who channels New York intellectual energy without being a cliché.
Jonathan Arkin is David Malter, Reuven's father and our connection to the political unrest of the time. Malter's heroes are Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann (the zionist founders of Israel), and he struggles with serving both his son and his cause. Mr. Arkin is a classically-trained actor; but I suspect that his Israeli father and New York upbringing contribute to his performance. I knew many men like Malter when I was growing up in New York.
Simon Levy, the Fountain's long-time producing director, skillfully uses every inch of the compact Fountain stage. A baseball game, crisply staged, is easy to follow. Synagogue scenes feel both airy and intimidating. Together, the director and actors work smoothly and effortlessly (although there is one weird multi-media scene that feels out of place.)
Aaron Posner's script, a revision of his 1999 version, is very verbal. Much emotion is spoken about, not shown. There is a great, and satisfying, emotional ending, but I would have liked to see more heat, earlier.
The Fountain's creative team, as usual, is in top form. Applause to Peter Bayne (music and sound), Donny Jackson (lighting), Linda Michaels (hair/makeup) and Michelle Young (costumes). A standing ovation to Andrea Caban who, as dialect coach, contributed to aural authenticity, and to DeAnne Millais and Terri Roberts, scenic and prop designers. New Yorkers really lived that way.
February 01, 2018 03:16 pm
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