We gave it a B+
Any reviewer’s heart typically sinks the minute a play’s title is creakily trotted out somewhere in the evening, but My Name is Asher Lev wisely gets that bit of business out with the very first line. Asher, played by the bright-eyed, engaging Ari Brand, then adds, ”the Asher Lev” as the name will take on a variety of different signifiers over the course of Aaron Posner’s endearing, well-judged adaptation of Chaim Potok’s celebrated 1972 novel (playing at Off Broadway’s Westside Theatre). The quaintness of the story — about a young Hasidic artist in 1950s Brooklyn tangling with religious responsibility and poetic license — would almost seem positively retro if its themes weren’t so keyed into the ongoing art vs. religion debate. What is an artist’s responsibility, ultimately, to his family and his society?
But you’re not in for a 95-minute semantics lesson. There’s a grand beating heart at the center of this story, sensitively directed by Gordon Edelstein. At the start of the play (which has continual fourth-wall-breaking narration by Asher), our prodigy would rather doodle images of his parents (warmly embodied by Mark Nelson and Ilana Levine, who also portray the other crucial adults in Asher’s life) than take a more active interest in his Papa’s political work with the Jewish community.
Soon, Asher is taken under the wing of a crusty older painter (Nelson again) who sees true genius in the lad and soon has him painting nudes and Christian iconography. But that leads to inevitable conflicts with Asher’s family tradition (cue the Fiddler on the Roof refrain, even slyly referred to here without being at all anachronistic). In a marvelous scene late in the play, Asher and his parents have a teasing, even-handed exchange about the matter with the son making a passionate, urgent defense of art for art’s sake.
Posner sometimes overstates his themes (and Brand’s outbursts can seem more aggressive than necessary), but the production benefits greatly from its economy. For instance, paintings are never actually physically realized on stage, only implied, and the supporting actors utilize slight costume changes to transform into other characters, which all adds to the homespun charm.
My Name is Asher Lev cradles the audience with delicacy rather than smother with preachy uplift, right down to the most simple of expressions (”drink your juice before all the vitamins go out of it”). That might explain why the play has already enjoyed a healthy six-month run Off Broadway. One thing’s certain, though: You don’t have to know the difference between a matzoh and a pizza to be fully sated. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)