Max Wolkowitz and George Guidall in The Chosen at Long Wharf Theatre

Twists of Faith

“You think a friend is an easy thing to be?” a character says early in Long Wharf Theatre’s new production of The Chosen. “If you are truly his friend, you will discover otherwise.”

Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel of the same name, about the unlikely friendship between Reuven Malter, the son of a Zionist Talmudic scholar, and Danny Saunders, the son of a Hasidic rabbi, has been faithfully adapted by playwright Aaron Posner. This is Posner’s second pass at The Chosen, which he first wrote in collaboration with Potok 25 years ago. For this new production, Posner revised the script in consultation with Long Wharf artistic director Gordon Edelstein.

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The first chapter of Potok’s novel tells the story of a baseball game in which the tension ratchets up one click at a time to a dangerous climax. So I was surprised by how funny the first scene of Posner’s play is. Edelstein’s direction draws from the angry first encounter of Reuven and Danny a humor that’s less obvious in the novel’s pages, a good warmup for the weightier material to come. Even the few passing lines in Yiddish, left untranslated, drew a laugh from many in the opening night crowd.

In that first scene, set in 1944, Reuven and Danny meet, instantly dislike one another, then face off over home plate. Eugene Lee’s set includes a downstage floor-to-ceiling net, suggesting we may be in for a real ball game. Sure enough, just as I was struck by the unexpected humor, Reuven is struck by a baseball slugged by Danny, using a sly bit of stagecraft that delighted without quite revealing its trick.

As we follow Reuven and Danny’s tumultuous resulting friendship, other paradoxes keep popping up. “We’re trees. We’re icebergs,” proclaims Reuven’s father, a line that sticks but receives no further comment. About the death of FDR, Reuven says, “The world got larger—and smaller.” During his first visit to Danny’s house, Reuven is tested on his knowledge of the Talmud, which includes a debate about two religious schools that lived in heated disagreement, though the women reportedly shared pots and pans.

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Though Reuven and Danny have lived their whole lives just five Brooklyn blocks apart, the distance between their worlds is much greater. The stark contrast between the boys’ upbringings and their relationships with their fathers is demonstrated in a scene that toggles back and forth between their homes. Reuven and his father relax at their table strewn with papers, talking animatedly. In Danny’s home, we hear only the faintest tick of a clock as he and his father sit in silence, studying their books.

George Guidall and Steven Skybell deliver commanding performances as Reb Saunders and David Malter, mirroring one another as passionate believers and wise parents. Though their characters reportedly know one another, they never interact in our presence. Yet at times the play seems to be as much about their relationship as it is about their sons’.

Tasked with both narrating his story as a young man looking back and acting out the crucial moments of his teenage years, Reuven is perhaps the play’s most challenging role. Max Wolkowitz moves seamlessly between affable boy and mature, confident man via the subtlest of shifts in demeanor. He projects in one moment the emotional confusion of a 16-year-old boy, and in the next, the calm confidence of a young man. As Danny, Ben Edelman is stellar. Leading with his forehead, nervously clutching his coat, his physical presence alone could tell the story of a boy raised by a rigid, religious father who fears that his son may become “a mind without a soul,” thereby driving him to undertake a painful correction: enforced silence.

The tragedy of the Holocaust and the dream—and then reality—of a Jewish state drives an even greater wedge between the young friends than their initial religious differences. And yet: “There’s always a way of reconciling the different points of view somehow,” Reuven tells us.

The Chosen is about silence and about listening—to ourselves, and to others. It’s tempting to believe that our own time is more tumultuous, more distressing, more dire than the past. One kernel of truth the play gives us is the reminder that most people in most times have believed the same. Urgent division is nothing new. It may be as old as humankind.

The play opens and closes with a Hebrew saying, translated as: “Both These, and These, are the words of the living God.” That is, seemingly incompatible ideas may both contain important truths. And if we can give each of them a fair hearing, we may even find a way to live with them—and each other.

The Chosen
Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Performances through Dec 17
(203) 787-4282

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson for Long Wharf Theatre.

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