October 18, 2018

Unchosen Actor, ‘Chosen’ Director

Years before he directed the play version of "The Chosen" — now at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica — David Ellenstein was up for the starring role in the 1981 film of Chaim Potok’s classic novel.

"So I began reading the book as a chore," said Ellenstein, whose staging is a co-production of his own Los Angeles Repertory Company and the West Coast Jewish Theatre. But then the secular Jewish actor was riveted by the tale of two boys — one Chasidic, the other a Conservative Zionist — who forge an unlikely friendship in 1940s Brooklyn. "I didn’t previously know there was a rift between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews," he said. "I wasn’t aware that some Jews did not favor the creation of the state of Israel. For me, the novel brought a whole Jewish world to life."

So it’s fitting that Ellenstein — who eventually lost the film role to actor Robby Benson — has helped bring another version of "The Chosen" to life. It began when he attended a Jewish theater conference in 2001 and was invited to direct "The Chosen" for the Arizona Jewish Theatre. His 2001 staging of the adaptation, by Potok and Aaron Posner, earned rave reviews and the attention of Naomi Karz Jacobs, founder of the West Coast Jewish Theatre. She told Ellenstein her Los Angeles-based group had staged 35 readings since 1993 but aspired to produce its first fully-staged drama. Eventually, Jacobs convinced her group to put up half the $45,000 budget while artistic director Ellenstein persuaded the Los Angeles Repertory Company to do the same.

"The rep is devoted to great literature, and the Jewish Theatre aims to promote Jewish culture," he said. "This play absolutely does both."

The collaboration is part of an encouraging trend for Jewish theater in Los Angeles. While 20 other cities in the United States and Canada have sustained long-standing Jewish troupes, Los Angeles hasn’t, said Susan Merson of the now-defunct Los Angeles Streisand Festival for New Jewish Plays. "The problem is that this is a film town, so in general people aren’t interested in the theater," she said. So while mainstream companies routinely woo the large Jewish theater audience with Jewish fare (example: Charles Busch’s "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife" recently at the Ahmanson Theatre), Jewish groups haven’t come up with the money to sustain a lasting Jewish theater.

In recent years, however, some tenacious individuals have helped to make a difference. Efforts include The Jewish Women’s Theatre Project, founded by Karen Rushfeld and Jan Lewis, which earned rave reviews for its first fully-staged show, "Hair Pieces," in 2001. The L.A. Jewish Theater often produces plays written by Jorge Albertella, its artistic director. Alexandra More produces and directs celebrity staged readings at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Now, "The Chosen" is earning good reviews at the 150-seat Miles Playhouse; it’s perhaps the first production under the auspices of a Jewish group to undertake the higher cost of an Actors’ Equity agreement (instead of a sub-100-seat contract). "We want to raise the stakes for Jewish theater in Los Angeles," Ellenstein said.

To prepare, the director and his five actors studied books on the Israeli War of Independence and spoke to a rabbi who had known Potok when he taught at the University of Judaism. Actor Robert Grossman drew on memories of his Yiddish-speaking immigrant grandfather to create his role of the Chasidic Reb Saunders. Ellenstein, meanwhile, focused on the directing challenges.

"The play has a narrator — one of the boys grown up — who isn’t in the novel," he said by way of example. "The narrator is a theater device that can become hackneyed, so my advice to the actor was to remember he’s invited the audience to share a message: that there’s more than one way to get to God."

"The Chosen’s" co-adapter, Posner, said he was moved to tears during the play’s 1999 debut in Philadelphia. Though the esteemed novelist was ill, he agreed to attend the West Coast premiere in Santa Monica. Then, during the first week of rehearsal, the director and his cast received shocking news: Potok had died on July 18 at age 73. "We didn’t even know he had cancer," Ellenstein said.

The cast subsequently decided to dedicate the show to Potok’s memory — and to the play’s message, which resonates even more after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy. "It’s about accepting the validity of points of view that are very different from your own," Ellenstein said.

“The Chosen” is playing thru Oct. 13 at the Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. For tickets and more information, call (800) 595-4849.