Capsule Stage Reviews: January 15, 2015

My Name Is Asher Lev In his 1972 semiautobiographical novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, American author, artist and rabbi Chaim Potok tells the tale of a Hassidic Jewish boy whose love of drawing comes into sharp conflict with his ultrareligious family and community. In adapting it for the stage in 2009, Aaron Posner took Potok's beloved and acclaimed novel and himself made some artistic magic. Posner's adaptation was a hit Off Broadway, where it won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Play as well as the prestigious John Gassner Playwriting Award. Posner's 90-minute, intermissionless, three-actor play, here under Ed Muth's hit-and-miss direction, tells a culturally specific story with a fairly universal theme, namely the conflict between desire, responsibility and faith. The story takes place in 1950s Brooklyn, and Asher Lev (an emotionally thorough Adam Gibbs) is the boy obsessed with drawing. It becomes a problem for Asher when he comes home from a trip to the art museum at the age of six and begins to sketch the images of Jesus and the nude women he saw hanging on the gallery walls. In spite of the boy's obvious talent, his parents try their best to put an end to Asher's drawing, which they label "narishkeit," or foolishness — which is just the tip of the somewhat overused Yiddish sayings and words the audience hears in the production. Asher's mother, Rivkeh Lev (Kara Greenberg in a warm but slightly overeager performance), and his father, Aryeh Lev (an overly stiff and too crisply consonantal-sounding Bradley Winkler), are members of the strict and cloistered Hassidic sect of Judaism who don't believe art is an acceptable or respectable profession for one of their own. Despite their disapproval, Asher can't and won't give up his art. Had Potok left it at that, we would have had a simple but somewhat clichéd parent/child culture-clash story. Instead, we're given an added twist to Asher's dilemma that zings the story back to life when he turns 18 and his art becomes decidedly dark and deeply controversial. No spoilers here on what he paints or who, but the work lands Asher a major gallery showing in Manhattan. The lead-up to his big show in which he reveals the work to his parents for the first time is a wonderfully tension-filled piece of writing that Muth stages beautifully for maximum gut-wrenching effect, without one ounce of heartstring manipulation. It's a very bright spot among Muth's otherwise fair to middling direction. The adaptation depends heavily on monologue from Asher to move the play along, and Muth manages this with economical but pleasing enough fashion. But scenes that have Asher on the floor and out of sight for anyone past the first row frustrate. Unable to tease believable heightened emotion from Winkler, Muth goes over the top in places with Greenberg as Rivkeh, most notably after she hears of her brother's death. Here Muth has Greenberg wail like the dickens for a couple of seconds and then abruptly stop, without any breathing room before or after to let the emotion sink in for his actor or his audience. What does easily sink in is the color palette of the set design, which can best be described as 50 shades of brown. Light, muddy walls and sparse brown wood furniture consisting of a desk, chairs, wardrobe cabinet and a wooden easel make one think the design team's artistic inspiration was dirt. Not only is it terribly unattractive, but the depressing nature of the design threatens to bring the whole energy of the show down with it. Still, this production has moments of beauty in it even if the play is at times marred by weakness in staging, design, performances and repetitive dialogue that relies too heavily on Yiddish to assert its authenticity. As Asher, Gibbs carries the play, and it's a standout performance that truly captures Potok's vision. Make no mistake, it's a Jewish vision, but that doesn't mean that the play isn't accessible to all. Everyone can either empathize or sympathize with the conflict between faith, family and personal passion. Sure, it's a heady subject, but Posner makes sure there are more than a few chuckles along the way to lighten things up, and Muth holds true to the terrifically uncertain nature of the play's conclusion. No hermetically sealed, nicely packaged endings here. And for that, let us all join hands and say amen! Through February 1. Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Houston. thelabhou.org. — JG

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman