The business of an artist is not much different than the business of a baseball umpire, though his field of vision is bigger. The artist must see the world, and then call it as he sees it.
Thus the artist finds himself at odds with his world’s participants and enthusiasts – the players and the fans – who see the world through the conventions and protocols of their communities. He is at best misunderstood, and frequently scorned and even hated. This is particularly true where the community itself is beleaguered by the outside world, as were Hasidic Jews in the early fifties, about ten years after Europe’s Jews were the subject to the largest wholesale massacre of an ethnic group in human history.
I cannot tell, from Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, now playing at 1st Stage, why Aryeh Lev (Andy Brownstein) is so distraught over and threatened by his son’s artistic gifts, but I can tell this: Asher Lev (Lucas Beck) is compelled to draw and paint as the salmon is compelled to swim upstream. Asher’s talent, and his compulsion, first appear around the time he is six, and grow in tandem to such a point that the community’s leader, the Rebbe (Brownstein again), decides that Asher must study art under the tutelage of Jacob Kahn (also Brownstein), a Jew who no longer practices his faith.
Asher tells his story mostly in retrospect. He is, as he speaks to us, a successful and well-regarded artist in the world. The subject of his presentation, at bottom, is how being an artist and speaking in his own voice tore him from his family and people. To teach us this, he invokes his home when he was six, when he was ten, when he was thirteen, and swoops into the scene as himself at each age. We see his mother, Rivkeh, (Hyla Matthews) and father impressed but disturbed at Asher’s early artistic development.
They grow increasingly more disturbed as Asher expands his oeuvre to include nudes and crucifixions. Aryeh’s upset seems grounded in a belief that art is frivolous at best and potentially evil, but all we see is a father complaining because his son is following his passion instead of studying – a complaint of fathers against sons throughout the world, Jewish and Gentile. In reality, there is a great Hasidic body of belief about art which Potok explores at some length in his novel, by way of giving background to Aryeh’s apprehension about the life Asher is pursuing. It would be a hard thing to import this into a play without turning it into a seminar, and Posner doesn’t try.
My Name is Asher Lev
closes December 23, 2017
Details and tickets
The rest of the play is devoted principally to two things: the efforts of his young and overmatched mother, undone by the death of her beloved older brother, to cope with the young genius in her house against the increasing hostility of her husband to their son, and Asher’s coming-of-age as an artist and a man through Kahn’s guidance. This is a lot of work for a 75-minute play to take on and there are portions which seem underdone or – a recurring word in this play – “incomplete’.
Nick Olcott gets good work, though, from the three veteran actors who put the play before us. Beck is obliged to take his character through the first three or four of the seven ages of man, and does a convincing job. As he sits cross-legged on the floor, a six-year-old showing his mother his drawing of her, he captures exactly the heart of the boy he becomes: shy, and at the same time absolutely certain his mother will love what he is showing her, and just as sure that her judgment will be correct. Beck is similarly spot-on taking his character through the rest of his childhood and young adulthood.
One thing is apparent about Asher: he holds onto his beliefs and desires as though the whole world depended on them being fulfilled. Beck does that perfectly. Asher’s tantrums are safely on this side of psychosis, but we can see the other side from where he stands.
Brownstein is marvelous in multiple roles—the father who is alternately sophisticated and naïve, stern and loving; the ancient rebbe; the rebel artist, full of cussed integrity; and, for a brief moment, Rivkeh’s great-hearted, doomed brother. Matthews does well with thinner material. Rivkeh’s personality does not allow her to do or say much that is unexpected, and Posner leaves her most interesting story line – her resolution to finish her dead brother’s work – on the table. We never learn what that work was, or whether Rivkeh finished it.
Jessica Cancino’s set is cunningly designed and beautifully executed; a series of walls and windows which allows Olcott to turn the stage into the interior of a home, the outside of a building, the Rebbe’s office, an art gallery and an artist’s studio. It permits the final scene – the unveiling of Asher Lev’s “Brooklyn Crucifixion” — to carry all the power and authority that it does in the novel.
Incidentally, the scene was so powerful to Potok – an accomplished painter as well as a novelist – to create his own “Brooklyn Crucifixion”. If seeing this play inspires you to commit art too, then good for you. Even if you alienate your community.
My Name Is Asher Lev, adapted by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok. Directed by Nick Olcott. Featuring Lucas Beck, Andy Brownstein, and Hyla Matthews. Set design: Jessica Cancino . Costume design: Marsha M. LeBoeuf . Sound design: Reid May . Lighting design: Kristin A. Thompson . Chris Rutherberg-Marshall was the rehearsal stage manager . Sarah Usary is the stage manager . Produced by 1st Stage. Reviewed by Tim Treanor.