Sounds of Silence

Wonderful story, strong performances, but…

By Cary M. Mazer

The Chosen

Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St., through April 18, 215-922-1122

There are two polished wooden desks in Chris Pickart's setting for Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok's adaptation of Potok's novel The Chosen at the Arden, each in its own pool of light. One desk belongs to David Malter (Tom Teti), a journalist, the other to Reb Saunders (Mitchell Greenberg), the tzaddik of a Hasidic Jewish community. Both men are Orthodox Jews, both are Talmud scholars, both send their sons to yeshivas. A volume of the Talmud lies open on each desk. They live a scant five blocks apart in Brooklyn in 1944. But there is an enormous gulf between the two worlds, between regular, worldly Orthodoxy and Hasidism.

The Chosen tells the story of the intersection of these two worlds through the friendship of the sons growing up in them. When Malter's son Reuven (Jesse Bernstein) and Saunders' son Danny (Sam Henderson) first meet, they are playing baseball on teams from rival yeshivas. Reuven plays in a yarmulke and shorts; Danny comes to the field in his long black coat and hat, and strips down to his tzitzit. Reuven considers the Hasids fundamentalist fanatics; Danny regards the Reuven and his Orthodox teammates as apikorsim, Jewish gentiles.

Posner's staging emphasizes the gulf between the two branches of Orthodox Judaism, establishing parallels and contrasts as the friendship between Reuven and Danny grows and their worlds intersect. Reuven pitches to Danny, for the fateful at-bat that brings their lives together, from atop one of the desks, while Danny stands in his batter's crouch atop the other. Reuven visits Danny's father and debates Talmud across one desktop, Danny visits Reuven's father and discusses Freud at the other. Soulful conversations between Reuven and his father at one desk are intercut with the image of Danny and his father at the other desk, sitting in chilly silence. Danny struggles with the rigors of the order and the expectations placed on him as his father's son and successor; Reuven discovers his own religious calling. David Malter and Reb Saunders each respond to the events of the world: the war, the emerging news of the Holocaust and the war for independence in Palestine. And the sons explore their relationships with their own and each other's fathers.

It's a wonderful story, and Posner and his actors tell it well. It helps that Bernstein and Henderson are completely convincing in their roles, feeling with equal conviction their characters' needs for friendship, paternal love and faith, and their need to understand their relation to the larger world.

And Posner and Potok (in the tradition of the Arden in its early days) wisely retain a narrative voice. As in the novel, the storyteller is the older Reuven, looking back, here played by Michael Thomas Holmes. The older Reuven sometimes speaks for his younger self (in one wonderful scene, he has a tortured conversation with his own younger self), sometimes looks on, and sometimes fills in as other characters.

But while the presence of a narrator admirably retains the flavor of storytelling, the older Reuven remains just a storyteller, and there is no sense of why we need to see the person that Reuven has become to understand the events that made him this way.

And there is another paradox to the constant presence of a narrative voice. From the very first word of the play ("silence"), The Chosen explores the difficulties, and eloquence, and blessedness of silence. Danny, in his chilled relationship with his father, tells Reuven that "you can listen to silence; it talks to you… sometimes it cries." Reuven's father teaches him to "learn to listen behind the words, to that which is not spoken." And Reb Saunders teaches both Reuven and Danny that "the heart speaks through silence."

A novel, in the medium of words, can present silence only by describing it. But a play has other options. As wonderful as the narrative voice is; as beautiful as the words of Potok's novel, and Potok and Posner's script, are; and as colorful as Darren L. West and Kurt B. Kellenberger's sound design is - with its sounds of clarinet music, radio broadcasts, echoing footsteps and resonant door slams, and the murmur of men at prayers - the play rarely if ever lets the audience experience the silence it talks about.