Long Wharf's MY NAME IS ASHER LEV examines art and religion

Jacques Lamarre

Three stars

Back in the 1980s, I submerged myself in the novels of Chaim Potok. I am not exactly certain why a Catholic boy from New Hampshire became so taken with Potok’s stories of New York Hasidic Jews. I devoured his most popular works, The Chosen, and its sequel, The Promise, as well as the novel My Name is Asher Lev, now adapted into a play receiving its world premiere at New Haven’s Long Wharf.

Perhaps I found the battle between the orthodoxy of the Hasidim and the heterodoxy of mainstream culture in Potok’s novels very dramatic. You find this paralleled in such works as Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl, where modern concepts of love come into conflict with Jewish tradition. In My Name is Asher Lev, the love in question is not for a woman, but rather the artist’s passion for his work.

The plot follows the story of a young Hasidic boy, the titular Asher Lev, born into a family steeped in traditional observances of a conservative faith. The father, Aryeh, is an up-and-coming leader in their Brooklyn community and the right-hand man to a powerful rabbi. The mother, Rivkeh, is an obedient wife who stays at home until the death of her brother impels her to educate herself (a plot point that never satisfyingly develops).

Asher’s prodigious skills as an artist begin to evidence themselves at a very young age, setting in motion a conflict with his parents that will bedevil the family for years. As an artist, he gravitates toward Christian iconography and nudes, both verboten to be represented by his Jewish faith. When a formerly orthodox Jew takes him on as an art pupil and connects him with a Manhattan art dealer, Asher learns that he must pull away from his Hasidic roots to stand alone as a genius artist. This causes enormous upheaval with his parents, his rabbi and the Hasidic community, especially when his diptych “Brooklyn Crucifixion 1 & 2” becomes a sensation.

Certainly, My Name is Asher Lev has the stuff of great drama and Long Wharf’s production is mostly sound. As Asher, Ari Brand ably embodies the push-and-pull of a faithful son put at odds with his faith and his father. Brand is a capable actor registering the emotional discord from the novel. As his mother Rivkeh, Melissa Miller is alternately heartbreaking, maternal and unnerving. Miller particularly shines as a snotty New York gallery owner.

Mark Nelson as the father Aryeh delivers a strong, tense performance. His dense Yiddish accent instantly grounds the character, while his arguments with his problematic child yield sparks. Nelson has a hard time separating his vocal representation of his other three characters -- a rabbi, a mentor and an uncle. Perhaps expanding the cast by another actor or two would help solve this problem.

The direction by Gordon Edelstein and Long Wharf’s production design elements are uniformly strong, with particular kudos to lighting designer Christopher Akerlind for creating haunting imagery.

The production’s biggest challenges lie in the adaptation of the novel itself.  Playwright Aaron Posner opts to have the action alternate between monologues by Asher, narration by Asher, and traditional dramatic sequences. Naturally, the dramatized scenes have the greatest potency. The narration often obviates what we can be seen onstage (“My father shook my hand.” Father shakes Asher’s hand). Various sections of the play are little more than opportunities to make speeches about the nature of art vs. religion, tradition vs. modernity, etc.

By jettisoning some of this talkiness and focusing on dramatic action, the play could have a wonderful future, inspiring many thrilling conversations about the heavy themes of filial duty, religious conservatism, the nature of art, etc. These are discussions worth having in a world filled with religious discord. In the end, My Name is Asher Lev proves a smart, insightful evening of theatre.

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