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Faithful Feud 

Dads and sons fight for Judaism in The Chosen at the Play House.

Reuven and Danny, in those awkward early days.
  • Reuven and Danny, in those awkward early days.

The adherents of all religions believe their interpretation represents The Truth. That, after all, is how food kitchens and wars get started.

In The Chosen, now at the Cleveland Play House, playwrights Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok explore two segments of the Jewish faith — Chasidic Jews and the more liberal religious Jews — doing battle with each other. Interweaving creedal-based arguments with the tension between fathers and sons, the play offers some intellectual stimulation. But it's swathed in a profusion of talk, and it never develops sufficient drama to keep the audience engaged.

Structured as a memory play, the show leads us through events that occurred during World War II by grown-up Reuven Malter, the math-whiz son of David Malter, a scholar of Judaism and a committed supporter of the new state of Israel. Reuven is 15 in 1944, when he meets Danny Saunders, an intense young man his age, who is the star of an opposing baseball team. Danny also happens to be the son of Reb Saunders, the honored leader of a local Chasidic Jewish community.

Young Danny is blessed with a fierce, Hank Greenberg-like swing; his screaming line drive lands Reuven in the hospital. He also is cursed with a ton of intellectual curiosity, a thirst that has him drinking from Hemingway and Freud. Both are traits that were frowned upon in his father's strict faith.

Over time, he and Reuven grow closer as friends, but the gulf between their religious backgrounds expands and eventually causes a split between the two, sending the young men on unpredictable paths to adulthood.

The playwrights, in adapting this work from Potok's renowned novel of the same name, take great care to ensure that the audience can follow the ins and outs of this religious conflict. But in so doing, the play often feels more like a tutorial than a pulsing, passionate drama.

Part of the problem stems from a sub-theme that involves the value of silence. "A word is worth one coin; silence is worth two," Reuven notes, quoting from the Talmud and establishing silence as a virtue. Among these four characters, most of the silence emanates from Reb Saunders, who won't even speak with his son Danny about anything but arcane religious points. With this part of the discussion silenced, the play never truly confronts the issues that are driving these people away from each other.

Given the script's flaws, the Play House cast, under the direction of Seth Gordon, skillfully fashions characters you care about. Jeremy Rishe and Andrew Pastides, as young Reuven and Danny, respectively, have the eager yet unfocused energy of guys struggling to find their own identities in the dark of their fathers' shadows. Although different from each other in superficially imposed ways, they share a need for support, which comes through with clarity.

The relationship between Reuven and his father David, played with sweet sensitivity by George Roth, is more problematic. Since dad and son are respectful and admiring of each other, their scenes are little more than love-fests sprinkled copiously with David's poetic advice: "True friends are like two bodies with one soul," he says, and, "It is not easy to be a true friend." Late in the play, we finally see David's blood rise as he defends Israel.

Kenneth Albers is properly imposing as Reb Saunders, challenging Reuven when he visits his service to prove his religious and mathematical skills. And director Gordon manipulates Reb's stiff moments with his son, to show how the distance between them expands even as Reb tries to use silence to teach his son to look inward and find his soul.

In the role of the narrator, Adam Richman has a comfortable mien as the older Reuven, but Gordon has him floating around the edges of too many scenes, as if we're bound to forget this is all a flashback. And Richman tends to burlesque his bit parts, especially as David's friend Jack Rose.

But despite these flaws, and despite too much silence at the center of this play's core conflict, it has much to say about the father-son dynamic, a familial battlefield that is never "chosen."

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