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My Name is Asher Lev

. . .strong words have been written and spoken about me, and myths are being generated. I am "a traitor", "a self-hater", "a blasphemer", and "an inflictor of shame upon my family, my friends, and my people". And, of course, myself. Well, I am none of those things. And, of course, in some ways I am all of those things. — Asher
My Name is Asher Lev
Ari Brand & Mark Nelson <
Aaron Posner's adaptation of Chaim Potok's 1972 novel premiered in 2009 at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company which he co-founded, In the ensuing years My Name is Asher Lev has proved itself to be an intensely involving drama with universal appeal. It's also been a gift for the actor playing the title character and narrator and the man and woman playing his parents and various other characters. Adam Heller, Karl Miller and Gabra Zackman did outstanding work in Philadelphia; so did Adam Green, Daniel Cantor and Renata Friedman in the production I saw at Barrington Stage in 2011.

Now Ari Brand and Mark Nelson reprise their bravura performances at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theater at Off-Broadway's Westside Theatre. They are joined by veteran thespian Jenny Bacon who adds yet another outstanding portrayal of Rivkeh Lev and others.

Posner, who also adapted Potok's The Chosen, ably directed My Name Is Asher Lev at the Arden and Barrington Stage, turned over the reins to Long Wharf's artistic director Gordon Edelstein who's directing the current production, as he did at his home base. His take on this very Jewish but fascinating for anyone from any walk of life drama, is as moving and sensitive as Posner's. His design team illustrates the play's adaptability in terms of stagecraft as well as casting choices.

You don't have to understand the Yiddish words and Hasidic dogma that permeate Posner's smartly streamlined yet full bodied adaptation. Nor do you have to be Jewish to relate to Asher's conflict of reconciling his allegiance to and comfort in his ultra orthodox upbringing and his need to fulfill his extraordinary gift as an artist.

The adaptation follows the novel's first person structure so that the title character is both narrator and active participant. This keeps Asher constantly on stage, and risks a play top heavy with biographical monologues. However, Posner has avoided overburdening the actor in the pivotal role and heightened the drama with the addition of the two multi-role playing other actors.

Eugene Lee's unit set and simple to move on and off center stage props, Ilona Somogyl's costumes and David Bova's wigs once again beautifully support the actors' character transformations and the movement to various locations besides the Lev family's Brooklyn apartment. John Gromada's original music and sound design and James Ingalls' lighting further enhance the production's aura.

While Asher introduces himself as an adult, explaining that he's both an observant or Torah Jew as well as a famous painter who is infamous to Orthodox Jews thanks to a series of paintings entitled "Brooklyn Crucifixion." His narrative segues into a flashback that flashes back to his early childhood in post World War II. Happily, even when we see him as a 5-year-old emerging prodigy there's no attempt to have the adult actor speak like a little kid. Ari Brand nevertheless gives a powerful interpretation to the role, whether as reflective narrator, an eager child, or a determined if conflicted artist.

The scenes showing the very young Asher and the father who's an important emissary of the all-powerful Rebbe and unable to reconcile his son's gift with his strict belief system struck me this time, as they did preiously, as bordering on parental abuse. Although as Asher gets older he also gains the strength to denounce his father's rigidity as as "aesthetic blindness," he nevertheless continues to feel torn between his responsibility to his people as well as to his art and expressing it truthfully.

As if dealing with a child whose inclinations go against the dictates of the tightly knit Jewish community weren't enough, the Lev family has other problems. The sensitive mother is emotionally devastated by her beloved brother's death but comes out of her depression determined to get an education (a no-no at that time for Hasidic wives and mothers). While she does end up going to Brooklyn College, her role as her husband and son's go-between causes her enormous pain and has an enormous effect on her son's work.

A major turning point comes when the Rebbe orders Lev Senior to move to Vienna to establish Yeshivas which sets off a full-fledged I-won't-go rebellion from 13-year-old Asher. While the Rebbe sticks to his plan for Asher's father, he surprisingly champions Asher's cause, and uses his role as the decider of all things concerning his flock, to send Asher's father to Vienna without his wife and son. What's more, he arranges for Asher to be mentored by a famous non-obserant Jewish artist, Jacob Kahn.

Mark Nelson's metamorphosis from Papa Lev to the Rebbe as well as the outspoken and very different artist is a tour-de-force of versatile, believable acting. Jenny Bacon's character shifts are equally impressive, both as the mother, and as a sophisticated art gallery proprietor and as a nude model. That brief nude scene which could easily be jarring in this story, is handled with great delicacy and quite naturally.

Asher predictably becomes the master painter he's meant to be and the story draws its conclusion by taking us to the opening exhibit of the infamous "Brooklyn Crucifixion" mentioned in the introductory monologue. That painting portrays the mother's agonized role as the family peace keeper which at one point has her tell her son "You exhaust me. You have no idea what it is like standing between you and your father."

There's nothing all that ground-breaking about the structure that moves back and forth between first-person narrative and dramatic interaction, but playwright Posner and director Edelstin use it superbly. The result is an unflaggingly powerful ninety minutes. drama.

A word about the art. When the adapter also directed, he opted not to clutter the set with actual art works. Whether the audience sees young Asher's drawings on sheets of paper, his canvases on easels or in an exhibit, all are blank. As Posner has explained it "in a play about Picasso or van Gogh, we carry images of those paintings in our heads, so you have to show them. But this play, is not about painting per se, about the drive to paint." He therefor left it to the audience "to paint in their own brains the most spectacular panting they can." Mr. Edelstein's production wisely follows suit.

With its superb performances and finely honed direction, My Name is Asher Lev is one of the most intelligent and engaging plays to be found on any New York Stage. Highly recommended on all counts.
My Name is Asher Lev
Aaron Posner's play adapted from Chaim Potok’s novel
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Cast: Ari Brand (Asher Lev), Jenny Bacon (Mama Potok, Chaim Potok's daughter, understudies the lead role of Rivkeh.), Mark Nelson (Ayreh Lev and Others)
Set design: Eugene Lee
Lighting design: James F. Ingalls
Costume design: Ilona Somogyi
Original music/sound design: John Gromada
Wig design: David Bova
Stage Manager: Cambra Oerend
Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes, with no intermission
Westside Theatre 407 W. 43rd Street 212.239.6200.
From 11/08/12; opening 11/28/12; closing 3/03/13.
Tuesday, 7PM, Wednesday, 2PM & 7PM, Thurs-Sat 8pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 3pm. Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 26th press performance
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