Metro Weekly

‘The Chosen’ Review: Religious Differences

'The Chosen' packs an emotional punch as it probes the differences in how two friends' families live their faith.

The Chosen
The Chosen: Ethan Miller, Sasha Olinick and Jacob Pelzman-Kern

Alex Levy’s previous production at 1st Stage, the tennis drama The Last Match by Anna Ziegler, initially drew my attention based on the sporting subject matter. But the show kept my attention thanks to clever staging, effective set design, and the charismatic performance of Ethan Miller as a mouthy Russian tennis pro.

For the company’s season-opener, The Chosen (★★★☆☆), Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok’s adaptation of Potok’s classic novel, Levy again makes effective use of a handsome set, this one designed by Nadir Bey in a way that aptly divides two families’ houses, while drawing them into a forum for debate. And, once again, Miller delivers a compelling characterization that also eloquently serves the story, pacing, and mood of the play.

Sporting a ginger fro under his kippah, and a Brooklyn accent that can veer amusingly towards Jackie Mason, Miller’s Reuven Malter chronicles his complicated friendship with fellow Jewish teenage Brooklynite, Danny Saunders (Jacob Pelzman-Kern).

The boys meet in June 1944, as opponents on the ballfield in a should-be-friendly Sunday baseball game between teams from Reuven’s Orthodox school and Danny’s Hasidic yeshiva.

Danny bats a line drive right at Reuven’s head that day, just one shot fired, albeit accidentally, in what Reuven calls an all-out holy war between the two teams, boys of the same faith but not the same practice.

The battle on the field portends another potentially devastating war of ideals brewing between Danny and his Hasidic rabbi father Reb Saunders (Sasha Olinick), who expects Danny to succeed him someday as their community’s spiritual leader.

The struggle between father and son, waged mostly in silence, comes to engulf Reuven, who, despite the boys’ contentious first meeting, develops a life-changing friendship with Danny. They often meet at the library, where, against Reb Saunders’ wishes, Danny devours books far afield of his assigned Talmudic studies. He’s most fascinated by Freud, which would outrage his father, though it intrigues his friend and confidant Reuven.

The teens are, as much as friends can be, soul mates, requiring a tall, intricate order of brotherly bonding from Miller and Pelzman-Kern, who meet that challenge. Through their rapport, Reuven and Danny’s blossoming friendship animates the first act, which otherwise stalls for speeches sketching the moral and spiritual principles being argued on every side by Reuven, Danny, or their dads.

The Chosen
The Chosen: Jacob Pelzman-Kern and Ethan Miller

As Reuven’s bookish, observant but fairly liberal dad, David Malter, Zach Brewster-Geisz establishes a pole of fatherly warmth and compassion in graceful opposition to the rigid Rabbi Reb Saunders raising his son in silence. Some of Reb’s rigidity extends to Olinick’s delivery of the role, and those speeches. His performance does, however, capture the tricky contradictions of a character who demonstrates both understanding and cruelty.

Danny and Reuven each suffer under the harsh edicts of Rabbi Saunders, and in the more dynamic second act, Miller, in particular, ensures we feel the impact of Reuven’s pain.

Yet, humor and hope are not lost in the plot, despite even darker narrative turns as the boys grow to young men, the war comes to an end, and both they and their fathers experience the pain of reckoning with the Holocaust.

Reuven’s dad becomes even more fervent in advocating to establish the Jewish state of Israel, while Rabbi Saunders, a fierce anti-Zionist, preaches that a secular state would be a sacrilege. The entire ensemble — convening, debating, confessing in William K. D’Eugenio’s subdued amber lighting — conveys the well of emotions dividing the characters, and holding them all together.

Through their battles of wills, lessons of faith and forgiveness are tested. “Both these and these are the word of the living God,” Reuven intones, pondering scripture suggesting that two different, even contradictory things can both be true.

Cruelty can be an act of kindness, perhaps, or at least someone can believe that to be true and also believe there should be no place in this world for the cruelty of war and hatred.

The Chosen runs through Oct. 22 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, Va. Tickets are $15 to $55. Call 703-854-1856, or visit


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