Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

The Chosen
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Review by Rick Pender | Season Schedule

Also see Rick's review of Much Ado About Nothing

The Cast
Photo by Mikki Schaffner
In its very first scene, as Reuven Malter (Eli Mayer) strolls onstage and begins to narrate The Chosen, we learn about opposite truths that seem mutually exclusive but also manage to coexist. That's a paradoxical intellectual construct from the Talmud, the ancient book of Jewish laws, studied and interpreted for centuries by rabbis. The young rabbinical candidate asks, "Are we capable of handling more than one truth at a time?" That's the crux of The Chosen, a play adapted from Chaim Potok's 1967 novel.

The production of The Chosen at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, a co-production with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, has been staged by Aaron Posner. In 1999 he adapted the script from Potok's beloved novel, working closely with the author. It's a concise summation of a story with just four characters with differing perspectives, circumstances and ambitions. Reuven is an orthodox Jew who lives with his father David (Steve Routman), a scholar who writes articles and speeches and who encourages his son's academic pursuits. In a lively baseball game involving Reuven's yeshiva, he is injured by a line drive from the bat of Danny Saunders (Hillel Rosenshine), a formidable athlete playing for a team from a strict Russian Hasidic community led by Reb Saunders (Ron Orbach), his dynastic rabbi father.

Much to Reuven's surprise, Danny visits him in the hospital to apologize, and they argue about Talmudic rules regarding injury and apology. Danny has an extraordinary, detailed recollection of the Talmud. They learn they live just five blocks apart in Brooklyn, but in two extremely different worlds. Reuven and his father talk and argue often; Danny's father prefers silence and almost never speaks to him, although he delivers loquacious sermons.

The teenage boys begin a tentative friendship. Reuven's father tells him, "A Greek philosopher said that true friends are like two bodies with one soul." It's an echo of the paradox Reuven cited in the play's initial scene: two differing perspectives that are both separate and true. Reuven learns that Danny has been fascinated by world literature, including novels by Dostoevsky and Hemingway, worldly works typically off limits for Hasidic followers. When Danny meets Reuven's father, they put together that he's the scholar at the library who has been opening Danny's eyes to the broader world.

An even greater disparity is on display when Reuven attends Danny's father's shul and hears him speak to his congregation, referencing an ancient form of numerology and questioning Reuven, whom Danny has described as a "mathematician." Reuven, an intelligent young man, makes a fine impression on Reb Saunders. Danny has described his father's life of persecution and loss in Russia before escaping and leading his flock to America, and now Reuven learns the oratorical power of the tzaddik, the unquestioned leader of his flock who expects his son to follow in his footsteps.

As the story unfolds, we find Reuven in his rabbinic training being drawn toward the deeper devotion of the Hasidic tradition, while Danny begins to question the path his dogmatic father has mapped out for him. He is fascinated by the study of psychology and is attracted to a career in a social science, a foreign land to his father. It's yet another reflection of the multiple truths that we come to see are contained in one entity, the profound friendship between the two young men.

There are, of course, challenges, especially after David Malter speaks at a rally at Madison Square Garden about establishing the state of Israel. Reb Saunders objects to the Zionist political movement and insists that Danny end his friendship with Reuven. Eventually the rift is overcome, their friendship is restored, and they pursue their unlikely careers. But Reuven's wise father suggests, "Differences of opinion should never be allowed to destroy a friendship."

While this story is rooted in the 1940s and the early 1950s, it has relevance to continued upheaval in the Middle East. There are lessons to be learned regarding these two friends.

This production of The Chosen is truly engaging because of strong casting in the story about fathers and sons. Mayer's portrait of likeable, inquisitive Reuven is endearing, and Rosenshine's representation of Danny's questioning and earnest desire to follow a different path than his stern father envisions makes him an intriguing character. As David Malter, Steve Routman is a genuine scholar and a caring father. Ron Orbach, a man of imposing size enhanced by a magnificent beard, renders Reb Saunders almost as an Old Testament prophet. His character's inclination to silence as a mode of communication is both mysterious and powerful. His charismatic presence adds significant power to this narrative.

The production's scenic design by Daniel Conway is simple but attractive and functional. An array of tall Italianate Victorian windows backs the action; behind them are images of faith, Hebrew words, and reminders of the devastation and loss of the Holocaust. The fathers' studies on opposite sides of the stage, one of a scholar, the other of a man of deep faith, depict the worlds that Danny and Reuven must navigate and eventually understand. Noele Stollmack's lighting (including the baseball diamond early in the story, illuminated on the parqueted wood floor) is a further enhancement of the storytelling.

This is a thoughtful and deeply moving story of friendship and understanding, messages that are all the more timely in today's world.

The Chosen runs through May 12, 2024, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Rouse Theatre, 962 Mt. Adams Circle, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-3888.