Theatre at its most riveting is the occasion in which the audience is engaged, challenged, and then ultimately committed and, in some way, moved by the experience. This first rate, theatrical experience was on display at 1st Stage Theatre in their presentation of “The Chosen.” Based on the beloved novel by Chaim Potok and adapted for stage by Potok and Aaron Posner, it is a fascinating period piece that deals with two boys and the lesser known details of Jewish upbringing. We relive their tumultuous years together amidst the 1940s and a changing world. Remember the simple, yet explosive, word—change.
…first rate, theatrical experience…leaves the audience wishing for a third act…
Set in Brooklyn during World War II, “The Chosen” is about contrasts. Two young Jewish men who, despite sharing a religion, culture, and neighborhood, are seemingly worlds apart. Danny (an impressive Jacob Pelzman-Kern) was raised Hasidic and Reuven (Ethan Miller in a remarkable display of stagework) Modern Orthodox. Reuven’s family strongly supports Zionism and Danny’s does not. At home, we see that Reuven and his father, David (an understated and believable Zach Brewster Geisz), a teacher, have frequent open conversations and a strong, clear bond. Conversely, Danny’s relationship with his father, Reb Saunders (regional mainstay Sasha Olinick), is one of actual silence. Saunders, a respected Rabbi in the Hasidic community, only speaks to his son about religion.
We meet Reuven at the opening and, quoting the Talmud, he explains to us ”God says this is true, but God also says this is true,” setting up the roller coaster barrage of ideas and emotions that are shortly to come. He narrates the show and we see it through his eyes, as he occasionally breaks the fourth wall with the audience.
The boys meet at the Orthodox vs Hasidic boys’ baseball game in an eye-opening scene (literally). When Reuben is injured by Danny in the game, he visits him later. It is an exchange that is awkward but gradually moves to acceptance, as Danny’s achingly deep longing for meaningful human interaction quickly becomes clear. Soon they are inseparable. Danny is deeply curious about many things considered forbidden by his religion. He is especially fascinated by Freud and reads any book he can get his hands on. Reuven has a gift for mathematics, but not a passion for it. Both fathers believe their sons will one day follow in their exact footsteps, but as is often the case, this turns out to be what neither son actually wants.
As the boys spend more time together, Danny’s Rabbi father needs to meet his son’s new friend and they attend a Hasidic service. As Reuven walks in, he intones “I feel like a cowboy surrounded by Indians.”
Both boys attend the same college. As World War II ends and the debate surrounding Zionism becomes a point of contention in the Jewish community, their fathers’ differing opinions threaten their friendship and Danny is forbidden to see Reuven. This is later resolved as Reb Saunders realizes he can only communicate to his son through Reuven.
In a fascinating inside look into Hasidism, we watch Reb Saunders preach and include Talmudic numerology called Gematria—a viewing of numbers of people or events added or subtracted to indicate significance. A study tradition to help focus on the complexity of the Talmud, it is a sort of Hasidic Sudoku.
Aside from its well-crafted characters is a script dripping with quotable lines and words that come at us like velvet hammers. As Reuven tries to understand Danny’s need, his father says: “You know what a friend is, Reuven? A Greek philosopher said that two people who are true friends are like two bodies with one soul.” Later: “What I tried to tell you, Reuven, is that when a person comes to talk to you, you should be patient and listen. Especially if he has hurt you in any way.”
In the induced silence that Danny lives in: “I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it.”
Finally, Reb Saunders intones, in his look back on life and his decisions: “A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning… life is filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest.” It is a universal theme, actually reminiscent of Ecclesiastes.
Performances were individually compelling. As Reuven’s father, Brewster Geisz was notable as a frail figure with powerful resolve and a kind heart. Pelzman-Kern as Danny was believable and echoed an innocent charm and the slightly stilted dialect of a Hasidic.
Miller as Reuven was remarkable, showing a range of emotion for many changing scenarios, all with a tone of inner city Brooklyn. As the intractable Rabbi, Olinick added gravitas as only he can.
Scenic Design by Nadir Bey gave us a one-piece, open set with a sunken middle, offering spacial differences and surrounded by bookcases—the central visual for knowledge.
Director Alex Levy has done a masterful job crafting each scene to a crescendo. He succeeds making two hours fly by and leaves the audience wishing for a third act, to see what happens to the boys in the future.
Running Time: Two hours with a brief intermission.
“The Chosen” is now EXTENDED through October 22, 2023 at 1st Stage in Tysons Corner, 1524 Spring Hill Rd, McLean, VA 22102. For more information and ticket tickets, Please email the box office at firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations, call (703) 854-1856 or go online.