“Religion divides us, while it is our human characteristics that bind us to each other.” This, a quote from Anglo-Austrian mathematician Hermann Bondi. But it doesn’t take a math whiz to know that matters of faith too often get in the way of our personal connections.
Take two 1940s Brooklyn boys, for example – modern Orthodox Reuven and Hassidic Danny. They’re the same age. They’re both participating in a competitive game of baseball. They’re both Jewish. So, what’s not to get along? Okay, sure, one of the boys is way more traditionally religious than the other (that would be Hassidic Danny). And one has just hit a ball into the face of the other. Plus there’s family pressure for the boys not to be friends.
Yet still, amid all these complications and stresses, they manage to forge a connection, one that lasts for years and enriches them both.
Themes of tolerance, duty, family and friendship are at the heart of Chaim Potok’s, The Chosen. Read by millions around the world and this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, it’s a story (adapted into a play by Potok and Aaron Posner in 1999) rooted in the traditions of Judaism but not walled in by any one faith.
On the one hand, it’s a no-brainer production choice by Theatre LaB in co-production with The Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center. This beloved story is still selling out theaters to this day. But overlap Potok’s exploration of how the pressures of faith and the duty to one’s own clan can breed unnecessary intolerance with the West’s present nativist racism, and you have a story that speaks as much about us now as it does two Jewish kids in '40s America.
In adapting the novel, Potok and Posner do away with the supporting characters, boiling the story down to only five roles onstage. But these five roles, under director Linda Phenix’s masterful stewardship of her immensely talented cast, create a play that feels as full up as you can get.
Reuven as an adult (played with silky naturalism by Brad Goertz) narrates the story of how he and Danny first met and became friends. It’s a dance, in a way, how these two boys from different sects of Judaism and wildly variant upbringings attempt to remain in each other’s lives. Fitting, then, that much of Phenix’s direction feels more like choreography than standard staging.
There’s the balletic baseball game where Reuven (a menschy and lovable Brian Chambers) gets hit in the face by Danny’s swung-at ball. There’s John Forgy’s mesmerizing physical performance as Danny, which plays like a shimmy to unheard music. We watch in awe as his lithe body curves and twists in emotion, his hands tapping and his feel gliding almost above the stage in anxiety as he educates Reuven on what life is like living in his strictly religious household.
The opposing duet of the boys' fathers is another dance. On the one hand, Reuven’s Dad, David (intelligently passionate Trevor B. Cone), is a writer and a scholar. Religious but not strictly so, he raises his son with compassion, involvement and communication. Danny’s father, Reb Saunders (Garfinkel, mellifluously affecting an Eastern European Jewish accent), is not only a great holy man and his community’s spiritual leader, but leads the entirety of Danny’s life as well, dictating his every move. And, bewilderingly, he does so mostly in silence, leaving his son emotionally bereft and confused but loyally respectful of his father’s wishes. Well, mostly.
The rest of the dance is left up to us and we two-step between watching a smartly touching story about a complicated friendship between two boys of differing religious observances and relating their struggle to our own sociopolitical situation.
“People are not always what they seem to be,” David says to Reuven as encouragement to look beyond Danny’s seeming religious piety to the exclusion of all else. As the boys become friends and Reuven learns of Danny’s love of Dostoyevsky and Freud (books he reads in secret as they are not allowed by his father), we too wonder who we are missing out on because of the climate of religious intolerance we increasingly live in.
When Reb Saunders (a man who believes that Israel can only be given to the Jews by God) finds out that David is a Zionist, he forbids Danny to see or speak to him. While our hearts break for the boys, they also break a little for all the expressed or implied excommunications our polarized times have caused. For all the friendships that are now broken thanks to politics or faith or pressure from our families.
Reuven wonders how his father can be friends with a man he has nothing in common with. David’s answer hits us like a Holy Grail, nonpartisan train. “Friendship is not based solely on similarities of opinion.”
And then, of course, there’s discussion of the Holocaust and how the world turned its back on fleeing Jews, leaving them to slaughter. Shades of present-day Syria waft over us.
Sure, you can ignore the thematic metaphors and simply enjoy this moving and joyfully sniffle-inducing play that appeals to people of all faiths or no faith at all. After all, there is so much to recommend this affecting story beyond simply the terrific direction and performances. There’s also Gerald LaBita’s detailed costumes and cleverly simple set design that relies mostly on tableaus of wooden chairs and tables. Evocative yet never overbearing lighting by Marc A. Gessner gives the whole show a rich patina.
But to do so would mean missing out on the profound beauty of what Potok has to say to us. “Ayloo ve’ayloo deevray elokeem chai’eem – Both these and these are true.” It’s said to us by Reuven the narrator at many junctures throughout the play. It’s from the Talmud, a historic book of rabbinical teachings. The Chosen shows us many instances where two realities are right or true. Some we see right away, and some others – like Danny’s father’s motives — take time to be revealed.
To really understand what Potok is telling us, though, we need to take the true “these and these” home with us and ask ourselves how we bridge our differences. How we connect with the other. Who or what is stopping us from reaching out.
Fifty years after the book was written, it’s a question more important now than ever.
Two pieces of business to finish up.
First, for anyone who hasn’t been to a play at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, you are missing out. This is a terrific theater space that puts on or brings in provocative programming. Yes, the shows there all have a Jewish connection, but they are in no way of interest only to the Jewish community. Kudos to Theatre LaB for partnering with the community center and bringing this marvelous show to Houston.
Second, as announced in the program, John Forgy will be leaving Houston to pursue his career in New York. Talk about these and these being true! It’s true that this is horrible news for us in Houston, losing such an incredible talent. A talent we at Houston Press gave our supporting actor award to last year for his very different but superlative turn as a drug-peddling, singing and dancing devil figure in American Idiot. But it’s also wonderful news as a talent like his should move on to new and bigger horizons. So it’s through a barely concealed pout that we wish him luck and hope he’ll come back every once in a while and wow us once again.
Meanwhile, you have just over a week to catch him and the rest of the talented bunch. Dally at your own peril.
The Chosen runs through May 21 at The Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, 5601 South Braeswood. For tickets, visit thelabhou.org or call 713-868-7516. $22-$42.