How terrifying to be a child prodigy, to possess stunning artistic skills without the emotional maturity to handle them. And then how bewildering to live in a community that frowns on these gifts and forbids their expression. In Aaron Posner’s “My Name is Asher Lev,” the absorbing but overly reverential take on Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel that opened last week at the Westside Theater, a young chasidic painter launches a career that puts him squarely at odds with his family and community.
Posner, who is known for his adaptation of Potok’s masterpiece, “The Chosen,” again distills a sprawling novel into a series of key, crisply written scenes. With most of the cast intact from its run at the Long Wharf in New Haven, “Asher Lev” features Ari Brand as both Asher and the narrator, with Mark Nelson and Jenny Bacon playing, respectively, the male and female characters in Asher’s life. (Potok’s daughter, Naama, understudies the female roles.) Set in Brooklyn in the 1950s, the play traces Asher’s trajectory from a timid boy of 6 who is drawn to painting the faces of his family members and neighbors, through his startling success two decades later as a painter of bold nudes and shocking crucifixions.
Moving briskly, the 90-minute, intermissionless drama presents Asher’s rise and the consternation that his painting causes to his parents and community, even as the sympathetic Rebbe links Asher with a distinguished ex-chasidic artist, Jacob Kahn, who introduces Asher to what he calls the “religion” of painting. Nelson switches seamlessly from the disapproving father, who seems always slightly trembling and on the verge of tears, to the brash and businesslike Kahn, who patiently whips Asher into shape through a long and loving apprenticeship.
Less convincing is Bacon, who seems overly flighty in the early scenes as Asher’s mother, Rivke, although she later startles with her acidity in an important exchange with her son when he refuses to accompany his parents in their move to Vienna to work with Soviet Jewish refugees. When the boy complains that no one is listening to him, his mother shows a lack of attunement to his feelings that, in tandem with his father’s callousness, seems to drive him ever onward in his quest for approbation from the world outside Brooklyn. But Bacon seems most comfortable in the much smaller role of Anna, the caustic gallery owner who champions Asher’s work. (She also plays Asher’s first nude model, raising interesting Freudian overtones that the production shies away from exploring.)
Ari Brand plays both Asher and the narrator with warmth and candor, as if simply putting before the audience the facts of the case. Having grown up, as Asher recalls in a wonderful phrase, “encrusted with lead and spectrumed with crayons,” Asher views being a painter as a “fact of life,” like “eating, sleeping, being a male, being Jewish.” It is difficult not to feel great sympathy for him, as he struggles constantly with being misunderstood, unappreciated and even maligned.
The director has left the look of the canvases up to the imagination of the audience; for example, the actors handle blank sheets of paper when they discuss the boy’s early drawings. We hear a lot about Asher’s paintings, but we do not see him actually painting. This is disconcerting; watching an artist achieve mastery over his or her craft is what makes many shows about painters, such as Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” or Ariel Dorfman’s “Picasso’s Closet,” tick. (In “Sunday,” of course, the paintings themselves come to life.) We want to see the painter struggling to create, and then we want to witness his mounting excitement as he finishes a work of art. Without this hands-on engagement with his art, Asher seems shadowy as a character, even as the details of his painting career are vividly rendered. And the play is somewhat drab and colorless as a result.
Any consideration of the painter’s passion would mean, however, going beyond the scope of the novel. The play follows the novel, which was ironically published at the height of the Sexual Revolution, in its avoidance of Asher’s puberty and sexual awakening. (One wishes that one could tell Asher to go downstairs, where the ribald “Old Jews Telling Jokes” is playing at the same theater — it might juice him up a bit.) Potok shows Asher’s coming of age as an artist but neglects his maturation into a man; he was able to sidestep that by having Asher, quite improbably, maintain a chasidic lifestyle even as he becomes world famous.
Even more problematically, the play, again like the novel, is sketchy when it comes to Asher’s motivations — most glaringly in the case of his ultimate act of betrayal that thrusts him beyond the pale of to both his parents and his people. This lack of psychological depth makes “My Name of Asher Lev,” despite its profound subject, more like the dramatic equivalent of a pen-and-ink drawing than a lush and colorful canvas.
“My Name is Asher Lev” runs through March 3 at the Westside Theater, 407 W. 43rd St. Performances are typically Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $36-79, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.