Ari Brand and Mark Nelson in a scene from
My Name is Asher Lev
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Set in the 1950s, after the massive upheaval of World War II and the Holocaust, My Name Is Asher Lev, a new play by Aaron Posner brilliantly adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, is a microcosm of an insular religious community and all its conflicts with the outside—gentile—world. The American Jewish community reeled from its losses and the threat to its very existence. Posner streamlined the novel’s psychologically dense plot, keeping the basic characters, conflating others, accentuating the pull of artistic freedom of expression against millennia of orthodox religious tradition, newly infected with the anxious zeal born of the near annihilation of an entire community.
Asher Lev (Ari Brand) narrates My Name Is Asher Lev taking us through his life, revealing the prodigy who at age six was able to make sketches of paintings whose substance he absorbed in his visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his fairly open-minded mother, Rivkeh (Jenny Bacon). She is emotionally caught between her talented, soon-to-be worldly son and her husband Aryeh (Mark Nelson). Aryeh is an acolyte of the Rebbe, spiritual leader of the Hassidic community in Brooklyn. He is a rabid Jewish traditionalist for whom an “us against them” philosophy is the only way to live. When Asher’s talent for painting leads him from the tight knit Hassidic community to the rich, materialistic and sensual world of Art in pagan/goyish Manhattan, the conflict creates a dramatic crisis that is beautifully and movingly communicated on the stage at the Westside Theatre.
Asher’s prodigious talent leads to dabbling in forbidden subject matter like the female nude and, eventually, adopting Christian imagery to express his rage and inner frustration at his father’s and Jewish community’s ostracism. This is a subject matter frequently explored in early and mid-Twentieth Century Jewish literature. Samson Raphaelson’s The Jazz Singer is a prime example, except that the stakes in Asher Lev are higher.
Ms. Bacon and Mr. Nelson also play multiple characters: Rivkeh’s beloved brother Yaakov whose early death takes the fight out of her; the Rebbe who, in the end, keeps his head while the whirlpool of hatred swirls around Asher; Anna Schaeffer, a sophisticated art gallery owner and stalwart supporter of Asher and his talent; a nude model who shocks Asher; and, most importantly, Jacob Kahn, the artist who corrals and focuses Asher’s talents and literally makes Asher’s successful career happen.
These changes in character are achieved with little more than a change of a garment, glasses and, of course, the creativity of Ms. Bacon and Mr. Nelson. Mr. Brand, pale, hollow-cheeked with deep, dark expressive eyes, is constantly fascinating to watch as he is alternately shocked, awed, pleased and emotionally shredded by the gradual acquisition of worldly sophistication. He is wracked by the turmoil of needing to express himself in his art and needing the love of his parents. Mr. Brand agilely goes from child to teenager to adult holding the play together with his soft-edged power.
Eugene Lee’s artist’s garret cum apartment-synagogue-art gallery is properly dreary and accurate in every detail. Ilona Somogyi’s costumes serve to denote characters with a brave combination of subtlety and obviousness. James F. Ingalls’ lighting helped create moods and places: grey apartment lighting, bright gallery lighting and even a beautiful rosy hue over Asher’s studio when he is on a creative binge.
Gordon Edelstein’s direction is clever, but might benefit from some rhythmic variation, some difference in tempos, some breath. His three actors gave him a great deal to work with and he took complete advantage of their talents.
My Name Is Asher Lev (through March 3, 2012)
Westside Theatre (Upstairs), 407 West 43rd Street, between 9th & 10th Avenues, in Manhattan
Tickets: call 212-239-6200 or online at http://www.Telecharge.com
More Information: http://www.AsherLevThePlay.com