It’s always difficult translating books to the stage and I can only imagine the difficulty in adapting Chaim Potok’s novels—tomes that span decades and depict the detailed intricacies of particular Jewish communities. Aaron Posner does an excellent job in his adaptation of Potok’s 1972 novel My Name is Asher Lev, currently playing at the Westside Theatre in New York (I also saw—and greatly enjoyed—an earlier production staged at Bethesda’s Round House Theater in 2010). Posner is no stranger to Potok; he previously collaborated with the author on an adaptation of The Chosen. Here, he pares down the complex story of art prodigy Asher Lev into a gripping 90-minutes, centering the story around the relationship between Asher and his parents—fervently devout Jews, unclear what to do with a son who doesn’t belong in their world of 1950s Hasidic Brooklyn.
Does Asher’s “gift” come from God—the Rebono Shel Olam— or more nefariously from the Sitra Achra, The Other Side? That is the question that Asher, his parents and his entire Hasidic sect grapple with throughout the story. Asher’s struggle to balance his religion and tradition with art and the outside world should be familiar to anyone from a strong faith background.
As Asher, Ari Brand has mastered the look and affect of a young, slightly haunted American-born yeshiva student and convincingly depicts Asher both as child and a young twenty-something. Mark Nelson plays his father, the gruff formidable Aryeh Lev, a trusted envoy of the Rebbe, who dedicates his life to spreading Judaism and Yiddishkeit, particularly to the Jews of the Soviet Union. Aryeh is baffled how someone like him who is constantly doing God’s work would have a son who insists on painting nudes and crucifixes. After seeing Nelson as Shylock in last year’s Merchant of Venice at Washington’s Shakespeare Theater it was fun to see him play yet another domineering Jewish father. He is also charming in his brief moments as Jack Kahn, the secular Jew who serves as Asher’s teacher and mentor. For Kahn art is a religion and “as an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it.” Jenny Bacon sensitively presents Asher’s mother as a broken bird who is constantly caught in the crossfire between her husband and her son.
The play is at its best when Asher is interacting with one of his parents, the continuous soliloquies meditating on his life felt a little repetitive at times. But watching Asher’s struggle to remain a dutiful member of his community while battling his primordial need to paint is powerful. Today, when a Hasid can be a successful reggae-rapper and a devout Mormon can run for president, it is hard to imagine life as such a zero sum game.
My Name is Asher Lev runs through March 3 at the Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St.
Photo courtesy Joan Marcus.