Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Stageworthy Adaptation of
a Popular Modern Classic

Paul Kropfl, John Lloyd Young, and Theodore Bikel
In 1967, Chaim Potok burst upon the literary scene with his first novel The Chosen. An unusually deft blending of popular storytelling and complex, intellectually stimulating themes, it catapulted Potok into the front rank of American novelists.

Throughout the balance of his career (he died in 2002), Potok continued to have great success as a novelist. However, he revisited The Chosen to write a treatment for the well known 1981 movie version, and wrote the book for the failed 1988 stage musical adaptation. Clearly, the themes that he explored in this work remained important to him.

When approached by Aaron Posner, the resident director of Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company, to co-author a new dramatic adaptation of the novel, Potok agreed to do so. Their engrossing and intelligent adaptation which premiered in 1999 is now on view in a new production at the Paper Mill in Millburn (co-produced with Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse).

The story spans the years from 1944 to 1949. It tells of the unlikely deep friendship that develops between two boys who come from very different Orthodox Jewish backgrounds after they fiercely compete in a bitterly fought baseball game between their respective yeshivas.

One is Danny Saunders, the brilliant hereditary heir apparent to the role of his father Reb Saunders, the worshipped, charismatic leader of an intolerant ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect. The other is Reuven Malter, son of David, a modern Orthodox, humanist professor whose writings are hated by Reb Saunders.

The mystery of the work is the reason that Reb Saunders so cruelly continues to raise Danny "with silence," only speaking to him when they study and debate Talmud (interpretations of Jewish law).

However, the stirring heart of it is Danny Saunder's struggle to deal with the conflict which arises within him when he discovers and embraces Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and, most of all, the psychoanalytical world of Freud. All of this is forbidden to him by his father.

Reuven's studies also lead him to a path other than the one proscribed for him by his father, but the latter's liberal attitude removes any real conflict from this situation.

Potok has explained his central theme here. Early on, each person learns the fixed, stabilizing values and traditions which are at the heart of his/her family and community. An educated person will eventually encounter the conflicting values of our broader Western society (i.e., secular humanism). The person then must choose either to reject this broad, resonant culture; abandon the traditions which make him/her unique; or draw what is valuable from the larger culture while preserving the basic beliefs and values of his/her own tradition.

There is much here for all audiences to ponder and enjoy. This is not "ethnic entertainment" that will only appeal to Jewish audiences. However, it should be noted that Jewish audiences will find this Paper Mill production particularly powerful and involving. It is played out against the background of the Holocaust, the founding of the state of Israel, and attempts which were made to destroy it at the time of its inception. The issue of the manner in which Jews should respond to living in a post-Holocaust world is addressed. Jewish practices, including Jewish numerology (gematriya) and the wearing of fringes (tzitzit), play a role in the story. Also, the secularization of students in our institutions of higher learning is a particularly important issue to American Jews.

As adaptors, Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok have managed to include a large number of the philosophic, intellectual and religious issues which spark the novel and its protagonists.

Under the guidance of director David Ellenstein, the production is generally a strong one. Particularly effective in the two leading roles are John Lloyd Young as Danny and Paul Kropfl as Reuven. They often have to play off each other, and there is a natural flow and camaraderie in their scenes together. Young strongly conveys the weight of the heavy burden under which his father has placed him as well as the passion for knowledge which might lift it from him.

Mitchell Greenberg is smoothly convincing as David Malter, a man at ease with himself who takes the time to dispense love and guidance to his son. Greenberg has one of the most interesting scenes in the play when he makes it clear to the college age Reuven that he will risk his very life (and the ability to be there for Reuven) to labor for the establishment of the state of Israel:

A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life ... a life full of meaning is worthy of rest.

Veteran favorite Theodore Bikel is an excellent choice for the role of Reb Saunders. His performance lends dignity and strength to the proceedings. However, his use of an accent is an unnecessary distraction. When the Reb's motivation for his behavior toward his son Danny is revealed, it hardly seems to have been based on sound logic. Potok may be warning us that not all those revered as wise men (tzaddiks) are wise.

Richard Topol seems miscast as the adult Reuven Mahler. His major assignment is to serve as narrator of the story at hand. However, he tells the story so dispassionately that we can hardly believe that he is the same person as the teenage Reuven who is so wrapped up in the events as he experiences them. Topol stands just at the edge of each scene, often with his arms folded, showing not the slightest bit of emotional involvement. At these moments, he becomes an unnecessary distraction. Additionally, he has two scenes in which he plays short character roles. In these scenes, he performs like a storyteller imitating the characters rather than inhabiting the roles. This is logically a valid choice, but it is not effective dramatically. At one point in the play, Topol steps into a scene to advise his younger self. This is completely out of keeping with the structure of the balance of the play. Perhaps he could remain out of the scene when delivering these lines.

Most satisfying is Michael Anania's set, abetted by Michael J. Eddy's lighting. It is evocative and playable. It fills the large stage with two side by side rooms (Reb Saunder's study and the Malter's small apartment), each featuring a partial bookcase, a desk or table and a few chairs. Each room has a distinctive look evoking the era and location. All of the scenes taking place elsewhere are played in the downstage area of the set with furniture and props as needed. Often visible at the rear of the stage is a backdrop featuring a black and white representation of the Brooklyn Bridge. As we move about Danny and Reuven's world, we are always aware of where we are located and never distracted by the large set pieces.

The smooth direction of David Ellenstein lends a smooth cinematic feel to the entire enterprise. I found myself looking for additional actors at the curtain call. When this happens, I realize with delight that the director and the writers have filled the play with a sense of life outside what is actually to be viewed within the stage frame.

With this production of The Chosen, Paper Mill is offering theatergoers a rich, satisfying, and thought provoking entertainment.

The Chosen continues March 21, 2004 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online

The Chosen adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok from the novel by Potok; directed by David Ellenstein. Cast (in order of appearance): Richard Topol (the adult Reuven Malter); Paul Kropfl (young Reuven Malter); Theodore Bikel (Reb Saunders); Mitchell Greenberg (David Malter); John Lloyd Young (Danny Saunders).

Photo: Pedro Portal

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Bob Rendell

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