'The Chosen' loses punch of original story

CLEVELAND What a shame. "The Chosen," author Chaim Potok's 1967 coming-of-age story, has the potential to be incredibly moving especially when performed by skilled actors. The tale illustrates how precious life is, how even the most unbending human beings can change. The story shows how people seemingly worlds apart have more in common than they think and how we must find meaning in life. So what do we get in the Cleveland Play House production of the stage adaptation?
Norwalk Reflector Staff
Jul 25, 2010

CLEVELAND What a shame.

"The Chosen," author Chaim Potok's 1967 coming-of-age story, has the potential to be incredibly moving especially when performed by skilled actors.

The tale illustrates how precious life is, how even the most unbending human beings can change. The story shows how people seemingly worlds apart have more in common than they think and how we must find meaning in life.

So what do we get in the Cleveland Play House production of the stage adaptation?

An emotionally empty experience.

That is the fault partly of adapters Aaron Posner and Potok himself, and an uneven cast that largely fails to capture the story's pathos.

The problems begin with Kenneth Albers as Reb Saunders, a Hasidic or ultra-Orthodox rabbi living in 1940s Brooklyn, N.Y. He wants his teenage son to eventually succeed him as spiritual leader of his Hasidic sect. At the same time, Reb Saunders hopes Danny does not become influenced by the outside world; Reb Saunders considers it tainted. He also does not speak to his son; he believes his son will find the answers to his questions about life in his soul.

Reb Saunders takes religion extremely seriously; he would gladly die for his faith, as we are told in the story.

Unfortunately, Albers comes across as too casual as the pious rabbi. The actor rushes his lines and little emotion emanates from his voice.

We can't help but hate Reb Saunders as he raises his son in silence, and forbids him from remaining friends with someone less rigid. By the end of the play, we admire Reb Saunders for his willingness to let Danny live the life he wishes.

But, the feelings we have for a character depends largely on how well the actor portrays him or her.

In the role of Reb Saunders, Albers, with his long white beard and deep voice, is little more than a mildly irritated Santa Claus.

George Roth fares better as David Malter, the other father in the story. He is raising his 15-year-old son, Reuven, and his goal in life is to push for the creation of the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

Roth makes David Malter earnest and determined, but there's little chemistry between father and son; we do not feel there is genuine affection between them. That is also the fault of a lackadaisical Jeremy Rishe as Reuven. Rishe fails to convey Reuven's affection toward his father and anxiety about his father's ill health.

Then again, little is made about David Malter's health in the stage adaptation. There's a particularly heartfelt incident in the novel when he explains the fragility of life to his son. In the process, Reuven becomes frightened about his father's health and insists his father go to the doctor.

The incident emphasizes Potok's theme of life's fragility; it was a mistake to omit that scene from the play.

In the novel, Reuven comes to value life even more, after learning an eye injury he suffered could blind one of his eyes. But again, little is made of the injury in the play.

Granted, in adapting a work for the stage, an author cannot include everything; time will not allow it. But, he or she does not want to lose a story's essence.

There are a couple bright spots in this production. The addition of a ticking clock to accompany the silence between Reb Saunders and his son adds tension.

Andrew Pastides pours his heart out as Reb Saunders' son. The actor's voice registers genuine pain and anger and his gestures are appropriate. At one point, Danny says he feels as though his father has trapped him in a jail. Pastides moves his hands as though trying to pry open the "bars" of his "cell."

It's one of the few positives in a production that fails to otherwise arrest us.

Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him via email at akrause@norwalkreflector.com IF YOU GO

WHAT: "The Chosen."

WHEN: Through Nov. 25. Performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 3 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7 p.m. Nov. 20

WHERE: Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave.

HOW MUCH: Single ticket prices start at $10. For single tickets call (216) 795-7000, ext. 4 or visitwww.clevelandplayhouse.com. Groups of 10 or more should call (216) 795-7000 ext. 235.