review: my name is asher lev

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My Name is Asher Lev

By Aaron Posner
Adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok

Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Featuring Ari Brand, Mark Nelson, Jenny Bacon
Westside Theatre (upstairs), 407 West 43rd Street 
November 28, 2012 (opening) — March 3, 2013
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
December 5, 2012

(L-R) Mark Nelson, Ari Brand, Jenny Bacon. Image by Joan Marcus.
(L-R) Mark Nelson, Ari Brand, Jenny Bacon. Image by Joan Marcus.

A story of finding one’s voice and expressing one’s art is currently being told in My Name is Asher Lev, occasionally movingly yet within clear boundaries, on the upstairs stage at the Westside Theatre. Narrated in Asher’s consistent voice, sequentially enacted by three actors (two taking on multiple roles), we hear the story of Brooklyn born Asher’s struggles with his parents and with his Hassidic faith for the right and freedom to use his gifts as a painter in the secular world rather than to live within his cloistered religious community as he is expected to do.  I hear the words of this story, I see lovely moments created in a great simple evocative set by Eugene Lee and by solid actors, but I never feel this story on stage as theatre. Our narrator has already traveled the journey when we begin the story with him, our narrator is too present throughout the adventure, we are never allowed to stay in any moment of pain or joy or transition long enough to really theatrically feel those moments.

In Brooklyn of the 1950s, young Asher’s Father Ari (Mark Nelson who plays all the adult male roles) often travels for his work after World War II to build yeshivas in European cities, to spread Orthodox Judaism, and to serve as a political advisor to his Brooklyn Rebbe. Mother Rivkeh (Jenny Bacon who plays all the adult female roles) at first suffers when Ari  travels and her beloved brother dies, then finds her own voice through additional years of education. Young Asher’s artistic talent is recognized early by his uncle Yitz, by the Rebbe, and by Jacob Kahn, a secular Jewish artist who the Rebbe contacts to mentor Asher.  There is no moment in this telling of the story in which Asher’s talent, which we are never shown (not even to suggest the style of painting and drawing he has), in which some adult does not recognize his talents in superlatives. The play’s emotional climax occurs when some of Asher’s paintings are exhibited publicly, featuring a piece in which he portrays the pain of his childhood and the emotional struggles in his family through crucifixion iconography that challenges his parents’ sensibilities and his place in his religious community.

This piece is a literature of voice, not conventional theatre. We are told this story as a family story, a monologue with the assistance of enactors, delivered rather than felt. Asher, our “host” and our protagonist, stands and delivers his narration and occasionally goes into character, and the other two actors move in and out of other characters quickly, for a page of dialogue and rarely any more.  It is true that the script provides a plethora of lovely poetic speech, suggesting to me that a read of the original 1972 novel would be entertaining, but this did not play to me as theatre in its present form. I love much of the language — e.g. of his mother’s depression over his father’s world travels and the loss of her brother, Asher narrates to us: “She no longer lived in our house. She haunted it.” And wonderful wise characters momentarily populate the text (art dealer, art mentor, Rebbe) before the narrator figuratively turns the page. The Rebbe at one point says to Asher, “Jacob Kahn will make of you an artist. But only you will make of yourself a Jew.” These are believable characters with whom you enjoy sharing some time — too little time, as this piece is constructed, at any one go.

Playwright Aaron Posner has succeeded in selecting core passages for the story; nothing feels superfluous. As a staged reading by marvelous actors, this play communicates.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 20, 2012)

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