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Monday, 25 October 2010 01:00

The sound of silence - The Chosen at Mustard Seed Theatre

Written by Andrea Braun
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The sound of silence - The Chosen at Mustard Seed Theatre
mustardseedtheatre.com

The Chosen is grounded in dichotomy: Hasidim/Contemporary Orthodoxy; Prayer alone/Activism; Speech/Silence. Two fathers and two sons interact over a chasm of differences among each other and within themselves. Aaron Posner whose My Name is Asher Lev closed yesterday at The New Jewish Theatre, is represented at Mustard Seed in the other half of the "mini-Potok festival"—two adaptations by Posner of two novels by Chaim Potok, both directed by Deanna Jent. The two plays have some aspects in common, but also display significant differences. And, while I found some flaws in Asher Lev, I think The Chosen is nearly perfect in both adaptation and execution.

The Chosen is presented as a memory play narrated from the perspective of the early 1960s by an older Reuven Malter (Justin Ivan Brown) about incidents from his youth, age 16 to 21, in the 1940s. Opening in 1944, World War II is nearing its end when two boys who will become best friends meet in an unlikely way. Sixteen-year-old Reuven (Adam Moskal) plays baseball, and one afternoon, his team comes up against a group of Hasidim. His coach (Brown—who changes aspect and dialect in an instant) warns Reuven that these guys are tough, despite their traditional dress. One, Danny Saunders (David Chandler) drives his hits toward the pitcher. In the last inning with a slim lead on his team, Reuven is sent in to pitch.

Danny's hit catches Reuven in the eye, and when Danny visits the hospital, the boys begin to forge a friendship, though they are from vastly different backgrounds. Both live in Orthodox Jewish homes, but Reuven's father is a man of the world, a college professor. A widower, he and Danny live together in a book-filled home and thrive on their conversations. David Malter (Jim Leibrecht) is a wise father whose son adores him. Danny's father Reb Saunders (Richard Lewis) is a venerated rabbi, the sixth generation in a direct line back to Russia, from whence the Rebbe led his surviving followers to America after a pogrom. He is nearly worshipped himself. He rarely speaks to Danny at all, and their relationship seems cold and distant to Reuven.

Reuven is in awe of Reb Saunders and fears him. So does Danny, who longs for a closer bond with his father. But he will not let Reuven criticize the old man. Danny tells his friend about his father's heroic journey after great personal loss, and he also acknowledges that he is expected to be the seventh male in the Saunders line to take over the holy mantle. Reuven is interested in mathematics and plans to become a professor, which is also his father's wish for him.

Both fathers weigh in on the nature and responsibilities of friendship. The Saunders family helps Reuven when he needs it, and Reuven gives Danny someone to talk to and also fulfills a secret purpose for Reb Saunders. When the war ends shortly after the death of President-for-Life Roosevelt and the news of the magnitude of the Holocaust begins to trickle in, David Malter is outraged and begins strategizing on how to establish the State of Israel in Palestine. Conversely, horrified by Zionism, Reb Saunders insists America is the place to be and says that the only activism acceptable is prayer that the Messiah may come soon and deliver the people, because as horrible as these events are, they are also part of God's plan. The elder Malter's stand makes the rebbe furious.

Now in their first year of college, Reuven is pursuing his math studies, and Danny who had been inspired to read Sigmund Freud by a kind stranger in the library before he met Reuven (the man was David Malter) becomes more and more intrigued by the study of psychology. He is disappointed with experimental psychology though, and decides to transfer to Columbia University where he can study more theory. Reuven's plans change entirely as he, too, becomes more involved in the affairs of Jewry through his father who insists that it is up to the American Jews, the only population not decimated by Hitler's purge, to rectify the situation by supporting groups such as the Haganah and Irgun who are fighting for a new homeland.

Throughout The Chosen, the primacy of the word is emphasized—reading, speaking, arguing—contrasted with silence. Generally, we tend to think of silence as aural negative space, but that is too simplistic. We learn why Reb Saunders has raised his son this way, and so do Danny and Reuven. Silence has its own power through the heart's speech and its own texture. Listening to the silence, we are told, "you can hear the world cry."

Courtney Sanazaro has created a spacious set that accommodates everything from a baseball game to an apartment for the Malters and a book-lined study for Reb Saunders. The play is enhanced by Michael Sullivan's lights and especially Justin Walker's sound design with moody ethnic music woven throughout the silence before the play and during intermission. He also provides sound effects such as the crack of a baseball. Nancy Bell is the vocal coach who helped the actors with their Noo Yawk dialects, and they are mostly very good.

Deanna Jent's direction is a marvel. Her sensitivity to nuance shows in the performances and her talent as a choreographer is on full display. The older Reuven who is onstage much of the time and his younger counterpart echo each other's moves. I admired the fact that no props had to be moved around, so scene changes were indicated by the actors themselves as they almost glided on and offstage. The timing is impeccable and the audience is never distracted by pauses.

I've never seen Richard Lewis create a more fully formed character than Reb Saunders. With the weight of his world on his shoulders and his sorrow over Europe, he becomes, literally stooped. As his real self emerges, it's almost like an onion being peeled, a deconstruction that reveals rather than tears down. Leibrecht is also excellent in showing the many colors of his character from tenderness to fury with subtle steps in-between. Brown is always good and he goes so deeply into his characters that it becomes hard to recognize him from show to show. Moskal and Chandler are brilliant as the two Yeshiva boys from totally disparate backgrounds grow to manhood together, each learning to understand the other and their fathers.

The Chosen is a play of rare beauty and profundity. Or, in words that the younger Danny and Reuven would probably prefer, it's a home run. It drew large audiences for its opening weekend, and from my keyboard to God's ear, I hope that's true for the rest of its run.

The Chosen runs at Mustard Seed Theatre through Nov. 7.  For more information, you may call 314-719-8060.

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