Chaim Potok’s Jewish American coming-of-age tale “The Chosen” has a lot to say. But Gordon Edelstein’s new production, which runs through Dec. 17 at Long Wharf Theatre, acts like it’s afraid that that too much saying will be boring. So it overcompensates and undermines an otherwise meaningful drama.
It’s OK if a show is talky. Why wouldn’t a show about a religious leader, an essayist, and their studious sons be talky?
As in the Chaim Potok novel on which it’s based, the tale is direct, plain-spoken and easy to follow. Two boys meet while playing baseball in Brooklyn in 1944. They are both Jewish but from different traditions: Reuven Malter (the book’s narrative voice) is the son of a Modern Orthodox reformer, while Danny Saunders’ father is a Rebbe in the Hasidic community.
We hear Reuven’s dad David (a genial Steven Skybell, lacking the fire he brought to “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” at Yale Rep a few seasons ago) give some compelling lectures. We hear Danny’s father Reb Saunders (George Guidall, whose deep even tones you may recognize from the more than a thousand audiobooks he’s narrated) ruminate eloquently on the Torah. These lengthy discourses are compelling. They convey some of the pressing issues of Jewish culture in the final years of the second World War. They demonstrate the differing directions Reuven and Danny feel pulled in as they start to develop their own interests and beliefs.
“The Chosen” is also a study in different methods of parenting. David Malter is friendly, open, loquacious. Reb Saunders is sullen, strict, distant and uncommunicative (except when instructing Danny on religion). Potok’s novel has a lot more detail about these relationships, but the stage version has the advantage of being able to show the closeness (or distance) of the sons and fathers through how they sit at a breakfast table or do homework. As Danny, Ben Edelman keeps his head down for much of the play, avoiding eye contact with both friends and family. Max Wolkowitz as Reuven is more outgoing, maintaining eye contact even when one of his eyes is out of commission because Danny hit a line drive into his face.
That baseball scene is built up into an action-packed event where balls come flying onto the stage, hitting a net that’s draped across the set. It’s at times like this that “The Chosen” seems to not trust its ability to keep the audience’s attention. It somehow doesn’t think that a well-told, lightly dramatized anecdote about a neighborhood baseball game is enough. We have to see the ball and the bat. We have to see a slow-motion recap of the injury. It’s really too much.
The decision to involve too many props does not end with baseballs — it extends to four whole human beings, a largely silent chorus of men who rush in whenever a few more children, students or passersby are needed. Only they are not needed.
The script of “The Chosen” wisely scales the sprawling novel down to just its four central characters. When other characters are mentioned in the play, they are in the next room or down the hall, never present. It’s helps keep the story clear and the priorities straight. Having a bunch of guys lumber through at odd moments kills that clarity.
The stage adaptation is co-scripted by Potok himself. He worked with Aaron Posner, the adapter of Potok’s “My Name Is Asher Lev” (which the Long Wharf produced, then sent to off Broadway in 2012). Posner has done some recent rewrites on “The Chosen” for this production. Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, who directed “Asher Lev,” uses a slightly different approach here. While both Potok-based plays were given boxy, enclosed designs by scenic designer Eugene Lee, who framed them with ceiling beams and imposing back walls, “The Chosen” has a much broader and deeper playing area. There’s plenty of room for Reuven and Danny to pace around as they find themselves. There’s also unfortunately room for overly busy set changes, and, of course, those four wandering Jews of the chorus.
When I think of “The Chosen,” I want to think of its strong speeches and sermons, its confessions and soul-searchings, its love of language. Instead, I was thinking “Where the heck did the baseball come from?” and “I wish those four men would go away.” This “Chosen” is ultimately undone by its bad choices.
THE CHOSEN runs through Dec. 17 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $29 to $90.50. 203-787-4282 and longwharf.org.