My Name is Asher Lev

Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok
Long Wharf Theatre, Connecticut
Westside Theatre, New York

Ari Brand and Mark Nelson Credit: Joan Marcus
Mark Nelson, Ari Brand and Jenny Bacon Credit: Joan Marcus
Ari Brand, Jenny Bacon and Mark Nelson Credit: Joan Marcus

In adapting Chaim Potok’s popular novel for the stage, Aaron Posner and his director, Gordon Edelstein have adopted a minimalist approach, utilising only three actors and a simple set.

This creates a great intimacy but slows the flow, as the two supporting performers need time to change persona and costume on a regular basis.

The central character though is Asher Lev, played from childhood onwards by with winning charm and vulnerability by Ari Brand. He is a walking set of contradictions, which is a perfect recipe for powerful drama.

Asher Lev is a strictly orthodox Jew hailing from the ghetto of Brooklyn soon after the Second World War.

His father, Aryeh, is a strict man charged with creating centres of Jewish learning around the world. Like two other characters, he is portrayed with thoughtful consideration by Mark Nelson.

The capable Jenny Bacon gets less scope to shine as his wife Rivkeh, a woman in lengthy mourning for a lost brother, who emerges with her own learning mission.

From the age of 6, it becomes apparent that wilful Asher is a prodigy, capable of producing art works that astonish.

This should be seen as a blessing but in an observant Jewish household creates little but dissension and anger.

However, before he even celebrates his bar mitzvah and comes of age, our protagonist meets two extraordinary men, both given real humanity and individuality by Nelson.

The Rebbe is a community leader who has great wisdom and foresight, enabling the boy to pursue his ambition. This is achieved by introducing him to Jacob Kahn, another artistic genius who may be 60 years older than his protégé but has true empathy for his new charge, encouraging him but also warning of the implicit dangers of his chosen vocation.

Soon, family and career are heading for an explosive collision. Strangely, what could be devastating turns out to be amusing, as the need for nude work is debated at inconclusive length around the Lev family’s dining table.

However, the real issue comes to a head when, following a muse with no respect for Jewish tradition, Asher finds himself painting the family in a Brooklyn equivalent to some of the greatest works in history, leading to the kind of localised scandal that could easily end up in excommunication.

After a slow opening, perhaps to establish the characters and explain a few Yiddish terms and ideas, My Name is Asher Lev, which benefits from its author’s love of language as much as his knowledge of art and artists, becomes compelling viewing.

This play potentially has as much appeal for artists and art lovers as to the Jewish community, whose members made up the majority of the audience at the performance under review.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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