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A stage adaptation of Chaim Potok's 'The Chosen' reminds us to reach across divides

A stage adaptation of Chaim Potok's 'The Chosen' reminds us to reach across divides
"The Chosen" at the Fountain Theatre with Sam Mandel, left, and Alan Blumenfeld. (Ed Krieger)

If you've read Chaim Potok's "The Chosen," you know this story, but it bears repeating.

Two teen boys live not quite five blocks apart in 1940s Brooklyn, but they've never met because they move in different worlds. In a fuming first encounter as ballgame rivals, their differences seem insurmountable, but fate intervenes to help them get to know each other — to look beyond what divides them to see the person underneath.

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The Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood, which last year warned against the soul-numbing effects of divisiveness with the chilling "Building the Wall," has returned to the theme in gentler form with a heartfelt stage adaptation of Potok's 1967 novel.

The central characters are Reuven Malter, an Orthodox Jew, and Danny Saunders, raised in a much stricter Russian Hasidic community led by his dynastic rabbi father.

Reuven is the story's narrator. As portrayed by Sam Mandel, he is gregarious and sincere, inquisitive and enthusiastic. As Danny, Dor Gvirtsman conveys the tentativeness of a young man taught to live in his head, always thinking about the Talmud, which leaves him stiff and awkward in the daily world.

The boys' fathers are the only other characters in Aaron Posner's newly revised version of his nearly 20-year-old adaptation with Potok. Posner also adapted the author's "My Name Is Asher Lev," which the Fountain produced in 2014.

Jonathan Arkin conveys tremendous warmth as Reuven's scholarly dad, who tries to engage his son intellectually, challenging him to think deeper, and praises him for jobs well done. Danny's rabbi father seems quite the opposite. Although joyful and charismatic when leading his shul, he goes silent around his son, withholding affection and approval. He is a mystery, a riveting one, as portrayed by Alan Blumenfeld.

The script is essentially a series of debates or discussions, echoing the traditional way of studying the Talmud. At the Fountain, an enormous wall of books provides the story's backdrop (set design by DeAnne Millais).

"The Chosen" delves into differences in religious discipline, particularly the degree to which secular influences should be allowed to mix with godly ones. The story also examines parents' expectations for their children and the offsprings' impulse to find their own path.

Under Simon Levy's direction, the action gently builds, recedes, then builds some more toward a deeply emotional resolution.

In such shortened form, the story occasionally lacks sufficient explanation. Still, this production richly engages its audience in a broad range of topics, including the nature of friendship — the ideal of which, Reuven's father suggests, is "two bodies with one soul."

Expanded to a national level, that goal might not be possible. But it's certainly worth striving toward.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The Chosen’

Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends May 14

Tickets: $20-$40

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Info: (323) 663-1525, www.FountainTheatre.com

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Twitter: @darylhmiller

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