“The Chosen”

photo by John Lamb

Play: “The Chosen”

Group: Mustard Seed Theatre

Venue: Black Box Theatre, Fine Arts Building, Fontbonne University, 6800 Wydown

Dates: October 28, 29, 30, 31, November 4, 5, 6, 7

Tickets: $15-$20; contact 314-719-8060 or www.mustardseedtheatre.com

Story: Reuven Malter lives a quiet life with his widowed father David, an academic scholar and an Orthodox Jew, in the Bronx borough of New York City. It’s 1944 and 14-year-old Reuven’s world consists primarily of school, conversations with his dad, visits to the local library and his exploits on the diamond as part of a team in a Jewish baseball league. That league includes a squad of Hasidic Jews, who look and act differently because of their strict beliefs and customs.

Nonetheless, Reuven becomes friends with Danny Saunders, the star of the Hasidic team and son of the Hasidic rabbi, Reb Saunders. Danny is bound by tradition to be groomed as a future rabbi, but the young man has more passion for science and psychology and the intellectual fruits of the outside world than for the cloistered existence that has been chosen for him. He also has a strained relationship with his father, a cold and aloof man who prefers to communicate with his son through “silence.”

As the friendship between Reuven and Danny grows, and Reb gives his approval to that relationship, the older Saunders begins to use Reuven as a surrogate through whom he hopes to reach his own son. At the same time, Reb voices strong disapproval of David Malter’s political beliefs in the establishment of a Jewish state following the end of World War II and the shocking revelations of the genocide of European Jews in the Holocaust, and threatens to sever his son’s friendship with Reuven as a result.

Highlights: Jewish scholar and writer Chaim Potok’s story, “The Chosen,” was the first novel focused on U.S. Orthodox Judaism to be published (in 1967) by a prominent company. It was later adapted into a movie and in 1999 it was adapted again by Potok and Aaron Posner as a two-act drama. The current production by Mustard Seed Theatre is part of a mini-Potok festival, coupled with an excellent presentation of Potok and Posner’s adaptation of “My Name Is Asher Lev” that recently concluded a run at New Jewish Theatre. Both productions have been reverently directed by MST artistic director Deanna Jent.

Other Info: Both plays are deliberate and intellectual, focusing on conflicts in the primary characters exacerbated by strong religious traditions that run counter to the protagonist’s own emotions and ambitions. In the case of “The Chosen,” Jent’s pacing seems overly studied and precious. As a result, the dramatic impact is somewhat deadened by the overwrought atmosphere, in contrast to the tension built more successfully with “Asher Lev.” It’s a careful, cerebral approach, but “The Chosen” could benefit from a more robust unfolding in its tale.

Given that caveat, Jent coaxes some well calibrated performances from the quintet of men on stage. Justin Ivan Brown anchors the work as the adult Reuven, narrating as he looks back on key moments in his life. He’s on stage for virtually the entire time, and also essays a number of smaller parts with flair and sufficient color to accentuate their differences.

Jim Leibrecht is convincing as Danny’s sage, more secular father, a man more dedicated to his causes than to his own health but a kindly role model as well. Richard Lewis expertly conveys the tremendous charismatic power of Reb as the spiritual leader of his community as well as the man’s charred emotions, remnants of his own overly strict upbringing.

Adam Moskal and David Chandler are fine as the two lads, Reuven and Danny respectively. They have the bulk of the dialogue and do a good job showing the maturation of their friendship as well as their own observations about their worlds, both the differences in their Jewish denominations as well as the life beyond in college and their future careers.

Courtney Sanazaro’s set design and props nicely contrast the homes of the two families, the somewhat cramped Malter apartment on stage right and the more stately Saunders den on the left, although both clearly are dominated by books in all places. Michael Sullivan’s sober lighting accentuates the heavy theme as does Justin Walker’s sound design, while Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes effectively contrast the boys’ different backgrounds as well as the 1940s look of other, lesser characters.

“The Chosen” is a bit too studied and academic for sustained theatrical power, but will likely be well received by fans of the novel.

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.