Daddy’s Boys 

Coming of Age with the Talmud in The Chosen

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JEWISH FAMILIES may be best known for their overbearing mothers, but father-son relationships are at the heart of The Chosen, a snapshot of the Jewish condition in 1940s Brooklyn. This relationship is the perfect entry to the material of Chaim Potok's source novel: It's intimately tied to the passing down—and disseminating, and protecting—of cultural territory at a time when Jews had to rebuild. Aaron Posner's gutty adaptation translates an insular Jewish book into standing ovations at Portland Center Stage.

There are only four characters in The Chosen, all male. Reuven Malter (Carter Hudson) and Danny Saunders (Jonathan David Martin) are apikoros and Hasidic Jews, respectively. In laymen's terms, that means both wear a yarmulke (or "Jewish beanie," as Richard Nixon calls it), but only Danny sports the matching payos (i.e., curly sidebraids that God finds attractive). Both study the Talmud intensely, but only Danny lives by its edicts. After a baseball-field mishap, these utterly smart teens oppose their sects and rival teams to become besties.

While Reuven's father David (John Rothman) is also his friend, Danny's father, Reb Saunders (David Margulies—you may recognize him as the mayor from Ghostbusters I and II, although I didn't) rarely speaks to his son about anything other than the Torah. The boys' bond is rooted in seeing beyond their fathers' worldviews and developing their own religiosity. Reuven and Danny engage in Talmudic debate the way most smoke pot or read The Catcher in the Rye—it's part of the coming-of-age process. (Credit director Chris Coleman that the live stage does its thing here to facilitate intimate connections with characters who spend a lot of time being unrelatable—i.e., dissecting the finer points of Judaism). Their relationship seems impossibly mature at times, but not in an over-lexiconed Dawson's Creek way. Despite New York accents verging on Woody Allen impressions, both successfully convey their intellectualized emotions.

Margulies plays Reb Saunders with power and minimal hokeyness and caps his performance with a moving speech about paternal choices. Despite a mounting feeling that something Big is going to happen at the end, Margulies' ending remarks keep the focus on the father-son relationship, and writer Posner shows faith in his material, Jewiness and all. It's a risk that any Jewish parent would approve of, and it pays dividends.

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