The set up:
No art form more succinctly captures the pressure-filled expectations a Jewish parent has for their child than the tongue in cheek Jewish Haiku. For example:
Beyond Valium, the peace of knowing one's child is an internist.
While we can't know for sure if American author, artist and rabbi, Chaim Potok ever himself giggled over these 17 culturally veracious syllables, we do know that he understood the potential conflict over what a child dreams of becoming and what a Jewish parent sees as a desirable career for their offspring. Especially in the ultra-religious Hassidic Jewish community. In his 1972 semiautobiographical novel, My Name is Asher Lev, Potok juxtaposes a young Hassidic man's painterly artistic calling against his family's dismissal of the talent as an utter waste of time at best and heresy at worst. Adapted 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. One can only hope that his parents are proud.
Pairing down Potok's novel to a 90-minute, intermissionless, three-actor play, Posner's adaptation 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. Or more cynically, how a religious community can be both a loving and supportive place to grown up in, yet can also try to crush any personal passion that doesn't conform to its views.
The date is sometime in the 1950's, the place is Brooklyn and Asher Lev (a thoughtful and potent Adam Gibbs) is a boy with a problem. He loves to draw. More pointedly, Asher doesn't just love to draw, he needs to in order to organize and express his feelings and feel fully alive. This might not be an issue in some households, but in Asher's ultra-religious Jewish household, it's more than a problem, it's a sacrilege. Or it starts to become one when Asher returns 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 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 "narishkite" or foolishness. It should be noted that the play is peppered heavily with Yiddish sayings and words, all explained at some point or another to mixed effect.
Asher's mother Rivkeh Lev (Kara Greenberg in an easy warm performance that perhaps pushes the Jewish manner of speaking just a tad to cartoonish) and his father Aryeh Lev (an overly stiff and too crisply consonant sounding Bradley Winkler) are members of the strict and cloistered Hassidic sect of Judaism. Theirs is a community that doesn't mingle with the outside world, prays three times a day, mandates dress and diet and advocates the study of Jewish scripture and doing work on behalf of the Rabbi above all else. While it's true that Hassids can appreciate art, under no circumstances is an artist an acceptable or respectable profession for one of their own.
Asher may have the soul of an artist, but an instant rebel he isn't. He's a good boy who wants to please his parents and honor his religion, but like an itch you just gotta scratch, Asher just can't give up his passion for drawing. It's the way he communicates and nothing, not even his love for family or God can give him the same satisfaction or ability to express himself. An artist is an artist after all, as the saying goes, and there lies the drama. 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.
Despite his father's wishes, Asher is granted permission to paint by the rabbi who sets him up to apprentice with the non-religious Jewish painter Jacob Cohn for five years (both Cohn and the Rabbi are played by Winkler with a lack of emotional finesse). Afterwards, Asher travels to Florence and Paris at 18 to get his art fix on and there his painting takes on a decidedly dark and deeply controversial nature aimed squarely at his childhood and family life. No spoilers here on what or who he paints, but the work lands Asher a major gallery showing in Manhattan (here Greenberg plays the gallery owner as a splendidly pushy New Yawk city broad). The lead up to Asher's big show where he reveals his 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 relies heavily on monologue from Asher to move the play along and for the most part Muth manages the solo dialogue in economical but pleasing fashion. However too often Muth stages the younger Asher on the floor where anyone past the first row loses sight of the actor and misses dialogue as they strain to see. Unable to tease believable heightened emotion from Winkler, Muth goes momentarily over the top in places with Greenberg as Rivkeh, most notably in the aftermath of hearing of her brother's death. Here Muth has Greenberg wail like the dickens for a couple 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 sink in right away in this production is how very brown it is. Light muddy walls, brown sparse wood furniture consisting of a desk, chairs, wardrobe cabinet and a wooden easel makes one think the design team's artistic inspiration was 50 shades of 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.
My Name is Asher Lev 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 populates the entire play and it's his time in monologue that provides the best moments of the show and does justice to Potok's insightful story. It's a strong performance from an actor that knows how to plumb the depths of the character to keeps us engaged.
When it comes to connecting with the entire story, Jewish or not, one can't help but feel engagement with the conflict between faith, family and personal passion. We may not empathize but sympathy is easily conjured in this play. Sure it's a heady subject but Posner makes sure there are more than a few chuckles along the way to lighten things up. For his part, Muth allows his cast some nice interpretive room with the funny bits while holding true to the terrifically uncertain nature of the play's conclusion. No hermetically sealed, nicely packaged endings here. And for that can we all say, Amen.
My Name is Asher Lev continues through February 1 at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Houston. Purchase tickets online at thelabhou.org or by phone at 713-868-7516. $30 - $35.
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