BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev” regards a budding young painter whose shocking artistry clashes with the religious values of his devout parents and their Hasidic community in Brooklyn of the 1950s.
His novel now has been smartly realized by Aaron Posner as a play that opened on Wednesday at the Westside Theater in a thoroughly satisfying production.
Narrated by Asher in his 20s, the drama flashes back to childhood when his youthful gifts begin to worry his parents. In spite of their opposition, Asher doggedly pursues his inclinations until an all-wise rebbe connects him with a celebrated artist who nurtures the youngster’s talents.
Trying to maintain his Hasidic identity in the ultra-secular art world while remaining true to his bleak vision, Asher creates a potential masterpiece certain to horrify his cherished mama and papa back in Brooklyn.
Skillfully mining the novelist’s language, Posner distills Potok’s richly-flavored story of religion, art, family and devotion to a higher power into a bittersweet 95-minute drama performed by three fine actors in director Gordon Edelstein’s taut but tender production.
All hollow cheeks and haunted-eye intensity, Ari Brand earnestly delivers Asher’s many monologues, while believably depicting the artist’s younger self at different ages. Asher’s rigid father, the kindly rebbe, the crusty veteran artist and others are portrayed with deep conviction and different accents by Mark Nelson. Asher’s troubled but loving mama, a worldly gallery owner and an artist’s model are given distinctive and touching life by Jenny Bacon.
The sensitivity of these performances are matched by similar nice touches in Edelstein’s production, be it the plaintive music and delicate sound effects composed by John Gromada or the post-war clothes designed by Ilona Somogyi. Masterfully designed by Eugene Lee, the setting melds the slanted windows of an artist’s studio with the seasoned woodwork and traditional furniture of a Brooklyn apartment. Designer James F. Ingall’s lighting warmly defines the episodic story’s locations and changes in mood.
“My Name is Asher Lev” continues at the Westside Theater, 407 W. 43rd St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.asherlevtheplay.com.