Monday, October 12, 2009

"The Chosen": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

The major plot point in the brilliant Theatreworks adaptation of Chaim Potok's "The Chosen," playing through the first of November at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, is the maturation of two young Jewish teenagers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the mid-to-late 1940s. But the beating heart of the story is the relationship of the young men with their fathers.

All the characters in this story are Orthodox Jews, but young Reuven Malter and his father (Jonathan Bock and Rolf Saxon) are more secular, whereas the young Danny Saunders and his father (Thomas Gorrebeeck and Corey Fischer) are strict Hasidic Jews. But it's more than that -- Danny's father, Reb Saunders, is not only a rabbi but a tzadik -- a holy man -- and as such is the absolute pillar of his community. His father and grandfather before him, in Europe, were also tzadiks, and as the eldest son of such a tzadik, Danny Saunders is expected to step into the same role in the future.

But Danny's role with his father is a difficult one. The old tzadik refuses to speak with his son, preferring to teach him how to suffer in silence, whereas Reuven and his father have a beautiful and enriching relationship, sitting over tea and talking constantly in their apartment only a few blocks away from the Saunders' home. Over the course of this magnificent tale, we see how the old rabbi, though trapped in his centuries-old view of the world, comes to regard Reuven as his bridge to break through to his own son.

Jonathan Bock (last seen in the enigmatic Thom Paine (Baised on Nothing), gives a nuanced performance that reminds of us Matthew Broderick. His friendship with Danny Saunders, after the momentous baseball game between the two Yeshivas, has soul as well as heart; Thomas Gorrebeeck's Danny is even more soulful, because he seems to have so much more to overcome. Whereas both boys will make decisions as to the eventual courses of their lives, only Danny's will affect his entire community, as well as reflect upon countless generations lost in Europe.

Corey Fischer dominates the stage as Reb Saunders. He hulks, he muses, he limps, he looks like his stomach is forever upset, but he fools us -- he knows far more than he is letting on.

In the end, we love every character. We are on their side. The issues that concern them in 1949 concern us still today. Chaim Potok, who died in 2002, wrote a masterpiece and Theaterworks has brought it into the shining light.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Chosen" Three Stars with Two Bangles of Praise. Director Aaron Davidman earns one Star for his excellent staging and pacing, while obviously knowing the story inside and out. Chaim Potok felt perhaps even more deeply for the Hasidic father and son and Corey Fischer and Thomas Gorrebeeck do them proud.

One Bangle of Praise is for the interestingly-staged baseball scene at the beginning of the show, and one is for a beautiful set piece when the old rabbi, his son and Reuven are davening together (that is, praying in Orthodox style). We realize these three are so close in their hearts, but far apart in their chosen ways of life. In the end, we see the issues of the forties in Brooklyn as the same issues that have concerned the Jews since Moses went up on the mountain. The world still needs a tzadik.

"The Chosen"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through November 1

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