Friendship has rarely felt so good or hurt so bad, nor have father-son relationships caused more joy or pain than they do in Chaim Potok’s exquisite coming-of-age novel The Chosen, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner and Potok and now making an absolutely superb Fountain Theatre debut.

Fifteen-year-olds Reuven Malter (Sam Mandel) and Danny Saunders (Dor Gvirtsman) have grown up a mere five blocks from each other in WWII-era Brooklyn, but they might just as well have inhabited countries on opposite sides of the worlds but for one thing.

 Modern orthodox Reuven dresses and talks like any other all-American boy circa 1944, has a terrific relationship with his writer-teacher-activist father David (Jonathan Arkin), and is just plain crazy about America’s favorite pastime.

 Hasidic Danny, who could just as easily have stepped out of 19th-century Russia with his sidecurls and tassels, has grown up with his Rabbi father Isaac (Alan Blumenfeld) refusing to speak to him about anything not related to the Torah, and is just plain crazy about America’s favorite pastime.

Indeed, were it not for a not-so-friendly game of neighborhood baseball pitting moderns against Hasids and the ball Danny hits squarely into Reuven’s right eye, the two teens might never have met, let alone become best friends.

 Fortunately for both boys, the latter soon recovers, then wins Danny’s father’s rather unexpected approval, and before long the two are inseparable.

Like the novel that inspired it, Poser’s play charts the course of a friendship tested by Reuven’s father’s advocacy of a modern Jewish state and Danny’s father’s equally fervent anti-Zionist beliefs.

Novelist Potok’s own Jewish upbringing and faith may inspire much of what takes place in his masterwork, but Reuven and Danny’s story transcends any religious affiliation.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s had (or lost) a bosom buddy, or found themselves in conflict with a parent, or been faced with choosing between friendship and family not responding to this timeless tale.

 It’s equally hard to imagine The Chosen being given a more stunning production than Simon Levy has directed so masterfully, or a more brilliant cast than the one assembled on the Fountain stage, or a more sensational intimate production design, one that enhances Potok, Posner, and Levy’s vision every step of the way.

 A charismatic, instantly likable Mandel anchors The Chosen as both its youthful protagonist and as Reuven an unspecified number of years into the future, conveying all of the teenager’s Brooklyn spunk, his inquisitive, questioning mind, his joy at discovering a soulmate in the least likely of friendships, and the pain of loss.

Recent USC grad Gvirtsman makes a striking Fountain debut as the photographic memory-blessed Danny, whose trips to the library awaken a mind longing to break free, whose devotion to his father puts his friendship with Reuven to the ultimate test, and whose not-quite-native accent serves as a metaphor for his outsider status in a world embracing change.

 Blumenfeld vanishes beneath Reb Saunders’s fur hat, full beard and forelocks, and black silk kaftan in a performance of depth, power, fire, and ice, and Arkin’s dynamic, caring, passionate David Malter is the father any young man would give his eyetooth to call Dad.

Scenic/properties designer DeAnne Millais divides the Fountain stage into two halves defined by the books that fill their shelves, and Donny Jackson lights the two Brooklyn homes with nuance and grace.

 Michèle Young’s costumes and Linda Michaels’s hair and makeup aid all four actors immensely in bringing their characters to life as does Andrea Caban’s spot-on dialect coaching.

Most memorably of all, sound design Peter Bayne’s evocative effects fill in the blanks (at a high schoolers’ baseball game you can almost see the balls flying without a single prop ball in the air) while musically underscoring dramatic scenes to powerful cinematic effect.

The Chosen is produced by Stephen Sachs, Deborah Culver, and James Bennett. Miranda Stewart is production stage manager. Scott Tuomey is technical director.

As gripping, edifying, and moving a production as any I’ve seen at the Fountain, The Chosen is a must-see for audiences of any age, ethnicity, or religious affiliation. Even atheists may end up in tears.

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The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. Through May 7. Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. (Theater dark some performances.  See website for details.)  Reservations: 323 663-1525

–Steven Stanley
February 12, 2018
Photos: Ed Krieger

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