TheatreWorks sets scene well with 'The Chosen'

The set for TheatreWorks’ production of “The Chosen” — from Chaim Potok’s famous novel of the coming of age of two religious Jewish boys in 1940s Brooklyn — is so gorgeous and so perfectly contextualizes Potok’s story that you can only hope the acting and staging live up to it.

And they mostly do.

Adapted by Aaron Posner as a poignant memory play narrated by the adult Reuven (an engaging Michael Navarra), the drama traces the friendship between two baseball-loving, intellectually gifted best friends who attend the same yeshiva. More importantly, it explores the two parallel but contrasting relationships between each boy and his father.

Reuven Malter (played as a young man by the wonderfully natural and simpatico Jonathan Bock) is an Orthodox Jew whose dad (a warm and believable Rolf Saxon) hopes he’ll be a math professor. But Reuven’s leaning in another direction.

Danny Saunders (a slightly wooden Thomas Gorrebeeck with a wandering Yiddish accent) is a Hasid raised by a rigid, remote father who’s a rebbe (an acknowledged wise man and community leader).

The rebbe — as played by the magnificent Corey Fischer of San Francisco’s Jewish Theatre — is a monumental, grizzled vision in a white-bearded, wild-eyed, God-like incarnate, and ultimately heartbreakingly human. Fischer’s no less than riveting.

The affable Reuven watches helplessly as Danny suffers from the rebbe’s coldness, and Reuven also empathizes with his friend’s inner conflict between, on the one hand, obeying his father’s stern dictums and the destiny that’s been bequeathed him and, on the other, following his own true desires toward a more worldly career path.

Back to the set, which is so beautifully designed by Giulio Cesare Perrone and enhanced by other talented designers. On opposite sides of the stage, the warmly glowing dens of the two homes are lined with towering shelves of books — the Saunders’ shelves neatly arranged and the Malters’ more invitingly haphazard. Both dens are framed by towering apartment buildings that evoke the citified world outside. And eloquent, archival photos of the neighborhood are intermittently projected on a backdrop. 

The play’s episodic structure, of course, means that a lot of intriguing issues rush by. But no matter. Certain deep questions of morality and personal responsibility, and the passions of these four characters, resonate.

Under the assured direction of Aaron Davidman (who’s also artistic director of the Jewish Theatre), the emotional nuances are pitch perfect and the play makes a powerful impression.

 

THEATER REVIEW

The Chosen

Presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; extended through Nov. 8
Tickets: $26 to $62
Contact: (650) 462-1960,
www.theatreworks.org

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