Gripping and timely ‘The Chosen’ profoundly resonates at 1st Stage

The moment we are living in gives even greater urgency to this production's deep questions on faith, family, and friendship.

This review must start at the end. In The Chosen, a play based on the beloved 1967 Chaim Potok novel, an ending of understanding between an ultra-Orthodox Grand Rebbe and his heir/son, between secularism and orthodoxy in the Jewish faith, does not ring true. See the popular Netflix series Unorthodox. It’s not so easy to break the bonds of generations.

Everything else about 1st Stage’s gripping and timely production profoundly resonates—deep questions on faith, family, and friendship. The moment we are living in gives an even greater urgency to this production, which has been extended to October 22.

Written by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok, and superbly directed by Alex Levy, The Chosen is set in the mid-1940s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and is the story of two fathers and their sons. The Malters are observant Jews and the Saunders are Hasidim, a tradition-based sect marked by their distinct 19th-century clothing and an adherence to the study of the Torah above all else. To this day, the Hasidic community is a large, vibrant force in Brooklyn.

Jacob Pelzman-Kern as Daniel Saunders and Ethan Miller as Reuven Malter in ‘The Chosen.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Friendship—the soulful bond between two young men, who live only five blocks apart, but in different worlds—is at the center of the play. The performances by Ethan Miller as Reuven Malter and Jacob Pelzman-Kern as Daniel Saunders, in his first professional dramatic production, were riveting. They captured the turmoil of the times, of youth in any age, but even more so, in their intensely moving portrayals—the power of friendship. Both these young men are actors to watch.

Less than commanding was the performance of Sasha Olinick as Rabbi Saunders. His character has a tortured past—a first wife and son murdered by Cossacks in Russia. He is emotionally withholding and tyrannical in his silences. However, Olinick’s performance stumbled, was of a small man not a big man, especially in the bruising, larger-than-life climactic moments. In contrast, Zach Brewster-Geisz as the scholarly David Malter was achingly played with a tenderness and fragility coupled with the intellectual rigor demanded by his fatherly role.

One creative choice was to put the headlines of the 1940s in the background with brief mentions. The introduction of a transistor radio at an early point in the play made this reviewer think we would hear Edward R. Murrow’s famous announcer’s voice—sharing news of World War II’s end, or of the acknowledgment of the Holocaust atrocities, or of the state of Israel rising out of the Holocaust’s ashes, the latter of which is perfunctorily debated by the fathers.

TOP: Jacob Pelzman-Kern as Daniel Saunders and Ethan Miller as Reuven Malter; ABOVE: Jacob Pelzman-Kern as Daniel Saunders, Sasha Olinick as Reb Saunders, and Jacob Pelzman-Kern as Daniel Saunders in ‘The Chosen.’ Photos by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

On the other hand, the sound design and compositions by Ethan Balis were hauntingly beautiful and added greatly to the emotional moments and realizations of family, faith, and friendship that are the heart of this production.

Nadir Bey created the elegant, seamless set. Rakell Foye designed the costumes, faithful to the cultural and religious split between the two families.

Ultimately, The Chosen is in so many ways a play for this exact moment. As Alex Levy noted in his introduction, “This play is about building community at a time when we absolutely need community.” Amen.

Running Time: Two hours plus a 15-minute intermission.

The Chosen plays through October 22, 2023, at 1st Stage, located at 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. Tickets are $55 for general admission and are available for purchase by calling the box office at 703-854-1856, going online, or in person before each performance. Limited numbers of seats are offered at $25 and $35 for each performance. Open seating.

The program for The Chosen is online here.

COVID Safety: 1st Stage is now a mask-optional space with select mask-required performances offered for each show. See 1st Stage’s complete COVID Safety Information here.


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