Aaron Posner's My Name is Asher Lev, running at the Westside Theatre under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, can easily be classified as a Jewish play: the characters are Orthodox Jews, the themes are inherently Jewish, and, for the love of Lox-on-Bagels, his name is Asher Lev.
But you don't need to be Jewish to get My Name is Asher Lev. At its heart, the play is about fathers, sons, and the conflict between family tradition and self-identity.
Like the Chaim Potok novel on which it is based, the show, set in World War II Brooklyn, explores a young man's love of art, and how it threatens to destroy his family and cause a rift in their strict Hasidic community. Throughout the play, the title character directly addresses the audience to transport them backwards and forwards in time. The 90-minute play begins with Asher (Ari Brand), now a successful and controversial painter, guiding us on a journey through his youth. Hailed early on as a painting prodigy by his Uncle Yakkov, Asher's talent is humored by his good-natured mother Rivkeh (Jenny Bacon, who imbues her character with a great deal of motherly warmth) but thoroughly disregarded by his religious father, Aryeh (Mark Nelson), who neither understands his son's gift nor is willing to give it a second thought.
The relationship between Asher and Aryeh holds the central tension of the story. While the latter role could easily be played as a stodgy stock villain, in Nelson's hands, the argumentative Aryeh is a complex person: he deeply loves his son, but their relationship is haunted by his unwillingness to overcome his old-world religious obligations. Nelson does not only play Asher's father, but all of the adult men in his life – which packs a punch when it comes to impact. Nelson is everyone from Asher's kind Uncle Yakkov, who buys his first drawing, to Jacob Kahn, a painter who takes him on as a student and whose nurturing has the potential to turn the lad into a legend.
Brand, simultaneously haunting and haunted, is particularly impressive as he ably conveys Asher's shifts in age and demeanor. The actor is completely believable as both a teenager frightened at the prospect of seeing a female nude model (Bacon‘s dual-role: hello, Freud) in Jacob's studio and as a successful, confident, and deeply conflicted twenty-something painter. His pride and guilt are palpable as he realizes that his newest works, a series of crucifixions, have the ability to alienate not only the parents he loves and reveres, but the entire community.
Posner's script and Edelstein's production makes excellent use of period-perfect costumes by Ilona Somogyi, evocative lighting by James F. Ingalls, and a surprisingly versatile unit set by Eugene Lee. But it does have its slower-moving moments, especially towards the middle of the play, when the family squabbling grows to seem repetitive.
However, it's all forgiven when the play reaches its heart-breaking final scenes, when the tension comes to a head and a single, quiet moment changes the course of the family's relationship forever.
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