Monday, August 12, 2013

The Chosen: Too Much

Jeff Cuttler and Ben Rosenbach in The Chosen

The stage version of Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen at Barrington Stage Company pushes and pulls and preaches at you. It’s overwritten and overdirected (by Aaron Posner, who also did the adaptation with Potok) and a lot of it is overacted, too; you walk away feeling manhandled.

The book, which came out in 1967, is pedantic and repetitive, but it’s also authentically moving, and it catches you up in its unusual story. Set against the background of the last year of the Second World War and the formation of the State of Israel, it’s the story of two teenage boys in Williamsburg, Brooklyn who become improbable friends and whose twin coming of age illumines the value of two radically different approaches to raising sons. The narrator, Reuven Malter, is an Orthodox Jew finishing his high school education at a parochial school. He’s very bright, especially at math, and his only parent, his father David, a Hebrew school teacher, Talmudic scholar and early Zionist (Reuven’s mother died when the boy was very young) hopes he might become a professor; but Reuven has his eye on the Rabbinate. Father and son have a close, confidential relationship. Danny Saunders is the son of a Hasidic rabbi who brought him up – for reasons Potok doesn’t make clear until the end of the book – in silence, forcing him to look for answers to his questions in his heart and soul. Reb Saunders hardly speaks to Danny except during Talmud study or in synagogue, at which time he challenges the boy to find the mistakes he deliberately sprinkles among his verbal commentaries, a public test that Reuven, invited to attend services, finds appalling but that Danny is inured to and enjoys. Reuven is quick-witted, skillful and thoughtful, but Danny is a prodigy with a photographic memory, and his unbounded intellectual curiosity feels trapped in the restricted learning environment of the Hasidic community. So he steals off to the public library to read on his own, where – before he and Reuven cross paths on their own – Reuven’s father becomes his intellectual mentor, recommending Hemingway and Dostoevsky to him. Freud, however, he finds on his own. There’s a rebellious streak in Danny, who’s expected, as his father’s son, to become the next tzaddik, or community leader; his dream is to study psychology. (If this summary sounds familiar to you but you know you haven’t read the novel, then you may have had the misfortune of seeing the 1981 movie version, with Robby Benson bizarrely miscast as Danny and Rod Steiger tearing it up as Reb Saunders.)

The stage version is small-scale, with the narrator, the grown-up Reuven (Richard Topol) doubling in a number of small roles, most of which are rendered as over-the-top caricatures. (The one exception is his portrait of a merry secular Jew, a friend of David’s, who is brought into the fold during Israel’s struggle toward statehood.) Otherwise Topol gives a strong, open-hearted performance, the best by any of the five members of the ensemble. Meghan Raham’s set is divided between two tables and two bookcases that represent the worlds of study that David Malter and Reb Saunders occupy. That’s a good idea (and it’s an effective design), except in the scenes where the two friends play baseball, first as adversaries – they meet when the Hasidic team tries to “murder” the team from Reuven’s high school, and Reuven winds up in the hospital after Danny hits him in the eye with a baseball – and then as friends tossing around a ball as they converse. Posner can’t figure out where to stage these episodes, so he positions the boys on top of the tables the first time (that looks pretty silly) and behind the bookcases in the second (so we can’t see them properly). The staging is clunky overall, but that’s less of a problem than the wayward, poorly structured script – which feels like a literary adaptation, not like a play – and Posner’s insistence on ramping up the sentimentality, especially toward the end, when Reb Saunders’ confession of his motivation for bringing his son up in silence melts into a big teary hug between father and son that would be more appropriate to a program on the Hallmark Channel.

Jeff Cuttler does a creditable job as the young Reuven, and he’s often touching. But Ben Rosenbach is way too zealous as Danny, and his vocal rhythms make all his lines sound like lectures. I’m sure it’s tricky to get down the sound of Hasidic-accented English (especially Brooklynese) without sounding overstated; Richard Schiff, whom I loved on The West Wing, is even more hambone as Reb Saunders. I didn’t believe a word that came out of his mouth, and that was nearly true of Adam Heller, too, who plays David Malter. Heller’s fallback for big emotional scenes is to yell, and that’s what Schiff is already doing, so there are whole sections of the play where you might find yourself, as I did, pushing as far back in your seat as possible. (I had the urge to dive underneath mine.) The audience at the performance I attended responded warmly to The Chosen, but there’s a world of difference between the phony emotion it works up and the genuine feeling the novel evokes.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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