‘Silence.” Pause. “Silence.” Pause. “For a word to be spoken, there must be silence, both before and after.”
That’s the beginning of “The Chosen,” as spoken by the adult Reuven Malter (Charles Linshaw), in the warm-hearted production that’s up at the Lyric Stage Company. The 1999 play, adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok from Potok’s 1967 novel, looks back to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in the years 1944-48, when Jewish teenagers Reuven Malter (Zachary Eisenstat) and Danny Saunders (Luke Murtha) become close friends, even though Danny is Hasidic and Reuven is not. “The Chosen” is about overcoming differences and making choices, but it’s also about speech and silence, and learning to listen.
The best scene in the play is the first one. It’s 1944, and Brooklyn Jews have organized a baseball league “to prove to the gentile world that Jewish boys are actually ‘good Americans.’ ” As the adult Reuven, who’s our onstage voice of memory, sets the stage, young Reuven and Danny take their places on the diamond that designer Brynna Bloomfield has inscribed on the floor. And they’re quite a sight, Reuven in polo shirt and pants, Danny in white shirt, black vest and trousers, earlocks dangling, prayer-shawl fringes peeping from beneath his vest. At the Lyric, Reuven bats right and Danny bats left, and that accords with the way Bloomfield has appointed the set, with Reuven’s home audience right and Danny’s audience left. In the final inning, with the game hanging in the balance, Reuven on the mound and Danny at the plate try to stare each other down; Reuven gets two strikes on Danny, and then Danny lines the third pitch straight into Reuven’s eye. There’s no permanent damage, but Reuven is hospitalized, Danny comes to say he’s sorry, and a friendship is born.
“The Chosen” is also about fathers and sons. (The boys’ mothers have both died.) Reuven can and does talk with his father, David (Will McGarrahan); Danny and his father, Reb Saunders (Joel Colodner), speak mostly when they’re studying the Talmud together. Despite their religious differences, David Malter and Reb Saunders respect each other, and they “talk” to each other through their sons. David guides Danny to authors like Freud and Dostoevsky that his father could not openly approve; Reb Saunders invites Reuven to come study with him and Danny. In the end, each boy goes his own way, not the one his father would have chosen.
The play’s weakness is its occasional use of the adult Reuven to tell us what happened instead of letting the characters show us. In the first half of the second act, the fathers’ opposite reactions to the enormity of the Holocaust and the emerging state of Israel drive their sons apart, and what Posner and Potok give us is more history lesson than drama. It’s also unfortunate that Reb Saunders disappears for most of the second act and then re-enters transformed from a stern father into a teddy bear.
But the Lyric production is all strength. Eisenstat and Murtha are well matched as the callow, intense, good-natured boys; McGarrahan and Colodner dispense ironic wisdom as their loving fathers; Linshaw is an earnest, thoughtful adult Reuven who makes it easy to want to listen. Bloomfield’s set is anchored by a Romanesque window shape that suggests one of Moses’s stone tablets. At one point a Torah scroll is projected on it; at another, the play’s closing words, in Hebrew, are projected on the diamond floor. “Both these and these,” the adult Reuven translates, “are the words of the living God.” Then silence, and much to think about.