Friday, November 2, 2012

The acting is what's choice about The Chosen

Two of Boston's best young actors - Zach Eisenstadt and Luke Murtha.  Photos - Timothy Dunn
Every segment of the theatre-going audience has its own sentimental theatrical genre, I suppose.  I'm in, or have been in, at least three of these camps - I'm gay, formerly Catholic, and Irish; so basically some theatre around town trots out a play designed to cater to at least one of my identities almost every single week.

I don't have any personal connection to the Jewish sentimental drama, however, although it's often the best of the lot - or at least I thought so until I suffered through My Name is Asher Lev at the Lyric last spring, which frankly sent my cultural respect for the tribe of Israel into a tailspin for a time.  I won't re-consider that debacle here, but let's just say my caustic pan brought a hail of abuse down on my head.  So be warned - I'm treading more lightly this time around with The Chosen, at the same theatre, and from both the same adaptor (Aaron Posner) and the same source author (Chaim Potok).

Much else is the same, too - once again, Potok treats the Jewish version of the conflicts common to the younger generation in many (perhaps every) traditional community.  Only this time (luckily for me) he does so with sensitivity and insight.  His specific setting is the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, roughly from the last days of the war to the establishment of Israel; but he ties his action to a much larger vision of Jewish history (the Holocaust and the community's response to it shape the second act) - and even the pervasive presence of Jewish ideas in modern culture at large (debates over Freud, and even Wittgenstein, figure in either the play's text or subtext).

So Potok (perhaps not Posner) is spinning a much richer tapestry here than he did in Asher Lev.  Still, despite its depth, in the end The Chosen conforms to the familiar  arc of its genre - Papa relents, rigid rules bend, etc.  (I don't have any problem with that, frankly - I only wish we had a Reform movement in Catholicism to produce a similar form of schmaltz for my own former religion!) And to be blunt, the play offers us really only one side of the fraught history of the birth of Israel (here Arabs attack Jews, but Jews never attack Arabs).  Still, at least Potok reminds us of an intriguing irony wrapped around Zionism:  the Hasidim, and the Orthodox, often opposed the establishment of Israel, as it conflicted with their messianic tradition; it was largely secularized Jews who brought "the Jewish state" into being.

I think it should also be noted that Arabs aren't the only people cut out of Potok's vision - women are as well.  But again, this only accurately reflects the tenets of the Hasidim - and at any rate, I was struck here, as I have been elsewhere, by how same-sex environments allow heterosexual men a much larger emotional amplitude than they enjoy in mixed company.

Which the Lyric cast, under the direction of Daniel Gidron, explores quite fully.  Joel Colodner was the best thing about Asher Lev last spring, but here if anything he is even stronger as a magisterial Hasidic patriarch making life tough for his son Danny - played by the talented Luke Murtha, whom I've applauded in role after role for the past few months.  If I had a crystal ball, I'd say Colodner is now in the running for an IRNE nom; but for the first time, I was a little less satisfied with Murtha, who certainly brought his patented sensitive intelligence to the part - but to truly convince, the role requires stronger currents of suppressed frustration than Murtha seems capable of - at least so far. Danny has more of his father in him than Murtha realizes, I think, and thus he is perhaps slightly outshone here by Zach Eisenstadt, another talented up-and-comer on the local scene, as Reuven, Danny's closest friend and sometime competitor.

The cast is rounded out by local mainstay Will McGarrahan as Danny's Zionist father, and Charles Linshaw as the elder version of Reuven, who narrates the piece.  McGarrahan is miscast, but manages to cover that; Linshaw merely manages - but then to be fair, his is a colorless part.  The thoughtful stage design is by Brynna Bloomfield; the accurate costumes by Mallory Frers, and the imaginative lighting by John Malinowski.  You can catch this carefully crafted show, which has clearly been a labor of love, through November 17.

Charles Linshaw, as the older Reuven, ponders the mysteries of his faith in The Chosen.

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