Review: Peter Marks on Theater J’s ‘The Chosen’ at Arena Stage

The multitalented director Aaron Posner conjures with exceptional intelligence and sensitivity the religious and generational tempests of “The Chosen,” Chaim Potok’s 1967 coming-of-age novel recounting the unlikely friendship of young Jewish men from conflicting wings of the faith.

The harmoniously assembled Theater J production, presented in Arena Stage’s largest space, the Fichandler, is one of those rare literary adaptations that frees itself of page-bound encumbrances and allows us to believe its characters are beings created for this occasion. The illusion is reinforced affectingly by the five-man ensemble and, in particular, by Joshua Morgan and Derek Kahn Thompson, who portray the friends, Danny and Reuven, with uncommon feel for the strains, large and small, that threaten to undo a profound connection.

Although the play delves in some detail into the nature of their spiritual rift — Danny is from a more rigid, Hasidic family — “The Chosen” is by no means aimed at Jewish audiences only. The issue of tolerance within branches of a faith and the debate over what level of adherence represents scrupulous devotion are forever being wrestled with in every denomination.

And certainly, the core concern of Posner’s adaptation is a universal one: the almost mystical control a father can wield over a son. The story explores the ways in which duty to one’s God and one’s father can intermingle and become confusingly entangled. This is especially true of Morgan’s Danny, who is being groomed through an emotionally barren regimen to one day assume the leadership role held by his rabbi father (a fine, nearly unrecognizable Rick Foucheux), a man of integrity engaged in his own private struggle, with how best to nourish a child’s heart as well as his soul.

Arena has opened its renovated facilities in Southwest Washington to Theater J, whose customary base of operations is the D.C. Jewish Community Center on 16th Street NW. The arrangement reveals yet another of the remarkable spectrum of initiatives that Arena is rolling out in what now must be called its renaissance season. Allowing other D.C. organizations to work in its spaces — Georgetown University is going to show up shortly with its “Glass Menagerie Project” — gives a big boost to the efforts to bind together an arts community more meaningfully. Programmatically as well as architecturally, Arena is lighting this theater town up.

And just as Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” now in the Kreeger, was a great first get for Arena’s upgraded outreach to companies across the nation, Theater J’s “The Chosen” announces in satisfying style this expansion of local cooperation. One only hopes that Theater J, accustomed to performances in an auditorium with less than one-third the seating, can meet the marketing challenges of the 683-seat Fichandler (even if the production’s 19-day residency is rather short).

The in-the-round configuration of the Fich is not always the friendliest for naturalistic plays, either. But set designer James Kronzer plots a layout that smartly and flexibly illuminates “The Chosen’s” dichotomies. In one corner he places the study of Reuven’s father, the Talmudic scholar David Malter (Edward Gero, in an endearingly owlish turn). Diagonally opposite is the inner sanctum of Foucheux’s Reb Saunders; both are defined by a collection of handsome windows suspended in midair.

The physical geometry, expertly lighted by designer Nancy Schertler, works especially well for the scene in which the teenage Danny and Reuven first clash — on a ballfield. The boxy outlines of the stage are adapted effortlessly as a baseball diamond. Occasionally, though, playgoers on one side or another are unhelpfully and perhaps unavoidably denied a full view of an actor’s face. In a work in which so much passes unspoken between characters — indeed, the joyous and corrosive properties of silence is a significant theme here — you want to be able to take in every expression.

“The Chosen” is Reuven’s account of his years as a youth in postwar Brooklyn, where he leads a vigorously observant Jewish life, but one that’s considered heretical by the standards of Reb Saunders. The narrator is Reuven in middle age, and portrayed with abundant charm by Aaron Davidman. What he constructs is the tale of the intertwined development of his and Danny’s Jewish identities and paths in the world, which, of course, take surprising turns.

Some of the most entertaining interludes of “The Chosen” emerge as a result of the consciousness-raising each young man undergoes in the orbit of the other. As the older Reuven notes, the two grew up only five blocks apart, but the distance might as well have been across the globe. Morgan, wearing severe Hasidic kaftan and sidelocks, magnetically conveys the character’s exotic essence. It’s a performance at once intense and deeply sympathetic; the actor lets you see by impressive degree the migration in Danny’s manner, away from arrogance to a gentler kind of self-knowledge and assurance.

Thompson’s boyishly down-to-earth Reuven gives us a rewardingly all-American touchstone, and in the warm relationship the actor creates with Gero’s David, provides for Danny a persuasive alternative to the remoteness of his own father.

Posner’s generosity to the characters — echoing Potok’s own — is affirmed in a moving reconciliation at evening’s end, a redemptive moment that underlines the wisdom running through “The Chosen.” Enlightenment, the play tells us, comes in many guises, and not all blessings emanate from ancient verses.

marksp@washpost.com

The Chosen

adapted and directed by Aaron Posner, based on the novel by Chaim Potok. Lighting, Nancy Schertler; costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; sound, James Sugg; dialect coach, Shelley Herman Gillon. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through March 27 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 202-488-3300.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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