|Ari Brand plays Asher Lev with his mother, played by Jenny Bacon. Joan Marcus|
The new production of “My Name Is Asher Lev” at the Westside Theatre is very well acted and directed, and its perfectly conventional approach to the big issues of Art and Religion should ensure its success here just as it did in Long Wharf, where the play was produced last year.
Directed by Gordon Edelstein, the play puts three actors on stage in front of an evocative set to tell the story of the 1950s Brooklyn chasidic prodigy Asher Lev and his struggle to express his innermost feelings on canvas.
Adapted from a novel by Chaim Potok, Aaron Posner’s script takes a chronological approach, beginning when little Asher first exhibits talent as a 6-year-old. His compulsive drawing all over his siddur gets him in trouble with his father, a Chabad-like emissary for their sect’s rebbe. “An animal can’t help it,” roars Asher’s father Aryeh in response to the boy’s excuse for his drawings. As Aryeh and other characters, Mark Nelson tends to overact, but he skillfully creates four different men with no more than a change of costume and tone of voice. Ari Brand is just as effective as the title character, who changes from a little boy to an adult. His pronounced Brooklyn accent even becomes subtler as Asher grows more cosmopolitan and established in the art world.
The great conflict at the heart of the play is between Asher’s devotion to visual art and his father’s allegiance to the Torah and its moral code. Art is seen as the amoral realm of the self, while Aryeh upholds the ethical teachings of generations of chasidic rabbis. Of course, Asher’s art teacher insists that he learn the tradition of art, at least the European tradition, just as Aryeh wants him to know the traditions of Judaism. Asher is pulled between aesthetic tradition and Jewish tradition, between beauty and prayer. The artist is responsible to no one but himself, says Jacob Kahn, Asher’s mentor, while Aryeh insists that all is for the sake of heaven.
Between these two stands Asher’s sensitive mother Rivkeh, sympathetically portrayed by Jenny Bacon. Tormented by depression following her beloved brother’s death, Rivkeh tries to reconcile her son and husband, or at least help them to understand each other. Her emotional sacrifice becomes the subject matter of Asher’s most controversial paintings.
The neat divisions in the play bring out the themes in sharp relief, but they don’t help to create fully developed characters. We don’t really know Asher or his parents as complex human beings, but we understand them as symbols for the positions they represent. Each of the adults in Asher’s life refers to him as “my Asher” throughout the play, as if they could claim ownership over him. Although Asher says he’s deeply moved by Michelangelo’s Pieta, he doesn’t reflect on the fact that the sculptor did this, as he did most of his work, on commission, not to express his innermost feelings. The vision of the artist that Kahn preaches is a particularly modern one, and would have made no sense to the great Renaissance artists whom he urges Asher to study. Art is actually a stand-in in the play for individualism, the need for autonomy that is a threat to a communal-based society such as the chasidic world. If Asher is to listen only to his own inner voice, he won’t listen to the rebbe.
Despite these misgivings, “My Name Is Asher Lev” is enjoyable theater, and even moving in parts. The cast and Edelstein deserve much of the credit for a swiftly passing hour and a half.