Lyric Stage’s ‘The Chosen’ is warm and winning

BOSTON — It is interesting and ironic that a spoken-word play features as two of its main themes the joys — and the pain — of silence and the art of listening.

But that is just the case in the Lyric Stage Company’s production of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” adapted by Potok and Aaron Posner from Potok’s novel of the same name.

Zachary Eisenstat pitches to Luke Murtha during a game between their two schools in the Lyric Stage production of “The Chosen.” Photo: Timothy Dunn

“The Chosen” takes place in Brooklyn during World War II and its immediate aftermath and follows the paths of two Jewish fathers and their sons — one a Hasidic rabbi and a brilliant son expected to follow in his footsteps — and the other a worldly-wise yeshiva professor and his son, an excellent student whom the father also hopes will one day become a professor.

Our capable narrator is an older Reuven Malter (Charles Linshaw), the son of yeshiva professor David Malter, looking back with calm reflection and the wisdom of the years at the events that began with a baseball game between two Jewish schools, part of an effort by the students and their schools to show they are “real Americans” by participating in that most American of sports.

During the game, Danny Saunders (Luke Murtha), the son of an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic rabbi, is angered by what he feels are slights by the other team of non-Hasidic or “bad Jews.“

He lines a baseball right back at Zachary Eisenstat as the younger Reuven, severely injuring his eye.

Danny comes to visit Reuven in the hospital and — after some halting moments — a friendship is born.

But first Reuven must survive an inspection and a grilling from Reb (Rabbi) Saunders (Joel Colodner), who is suspicious about the outside influences that Reuven and his outspoken father David (Will McGarrahan) might bring to bear on Danny.

We find out Danny — brilliant, with a photographic memory and an inquiring mind — has been spending time at the local library with David, reading secular texts that have sparked an interest in psychology.

David explains the situation to the rabbi, who sees no need for anything for reading anything outside of the Talmud.

Danny respects his father and his work but is unwilling to shut out that outside world “I can’t stay trapped and I won’t,” he says.

Later, Reuven goes to live with the Saunders while his father is being treated for a heart attack, and is stunned by what appears to be a complete lack of communication between father and son — except when it comes to discussions about the Talmud, when they engage each other vigorously. The culture of silence is a mystery eventually unraveled by the Malters,

McGarrahan, one of the most versatile actors in the Boston area, is excellent as the yeshiva professor David Malter. He is an observant Orthodox Jew who also happens to be worldly-wise, open to all that is going on around him and full of opinions about it.

Zachary Eisenstat, Luke Murtha and Will McGarrahan in a scene from the Lyric Stage Company”s “The Chosen.” Photo: Timothy Dunn.

Murtha’s Danny is a dynamo with a thirst for knowledge and Eisenstadt is what my good friend Eddie Andelman would call a mensch, a particularly good and decent person.

After the war ends, Colodner becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of the Holocaust, unable to comprehend how his God could allow it to happen.

As his flock burdens him with tales of the losses of loved ones, he is even more determined to find his answers in the Talmud and not to lose his son. “You’ll not make a goyim (Gentile) out of my son,” he shouts at one point, as Danny becomes ever more immersed in his love for psychology and Reuven is the one who finds himself turning more to the Talmud.

A breaking point emerges during the debate over a Jewish homeland. David Malter is among the loudest voices calling for that new state — infuriating Reb Saunders, who believes there can be no Jewish state until the Messiah comes first.

The bond between the two families — and the friendship between Danny and Reuven — appears to be irretrievably broken. But therein lies the rest of the story.

Ah, yes, the listening part. This is all about fathers learning to listen — really listen — to their sons and sons, in turn, learning to respect their fathers while also charting their own path.

It’s all about the audience listening well, too, and “The Chosen” works in an intimate space like the Lyric where it might have been swallowed up in a larger theater.

Director Daniel Gidron is comfortable with the material and the cast and that shines through in their efforts.

“The Chosen” is a warm, winning look at how we learn to accept our loved ones and reconcile our dreams for them with the paths they ultimately choose.
The Lyric Stage Company production of “The Chosen,” adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok, based on the novel by Potok. Directed by Daniel Gidron. At the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, through Nov. 17.