Chaim Potok

Struggles of a Son and Artist

Review of My Name is Asher Lev, Playhouse on Park

The clash of cultures is central to the drama of My Name is Asher Lev, adapted by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok. Now playing at Playhouse on Park, directed by Joseph Discher, the story shows how a driven painter, Asher Lev, raised by orthodox Jewish parents, struggles to be understood by his people while becoming an artist in “the goyische style.” He paints nudes and crucifixions, subjects which are seen as a betrayal if not outright blasphemy.

Told by Asher himself in direct address to the audience, the story is fraught with disappointments and hopes, success and failure. Much of the early going has Asher recreating his viewpoint as a child, not really understanding why what he’s doing should be a cause for conflict. The play opens with the elder Lev appalled by his son’s drawings of “naked women” and blaming his wife for taking the boy to the art museum. We see how his mother and father are confused by Asher’s talent, recognizing his gift as a child but seeing little purpose for it. As Asher grows older, his father becomes even more dismissive, seeing drawing as a distraction from the important matters of life. The elder Lev serves the Jewish community’s leader, or Rebbe, and in the orthodox view only what the Rebbe approves can be meaningful.

Rivkeh Lev (Stefanie Londino), Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel), Aryeh Lev (Dan Shor) in the Playhouse on Park production of My Name is Asher Lev, directed by Jospeh Discher (photos by Meredith Longo)

Rivkeh Lev (Stefanie Londino), Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel), Aryeh Lev (Dan Shor) in the Playhouse on Park production of My Name is Asher Lev, directed by Jospeh Discher (photos by Meredith Longo)

At last, in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, Asher has a meeting with the Rebbe himself who is more benign than might be expected (especially since Asher, as a child, drew a rather unflattering caricature of him). The Rebbe assigns the teenaged Asher to Jacob Kahn, a successful Jewish painter who becomes Asher’s mentor. The most lively aspects of the story are found in Asher’s apprenticeship to Kahn, whom he gradually comes to surpass as an artist. As Kahn says, he doesn’t take on a pupil unless he can “make a David,” referencing Michelangelo’s famous masterpiece. Asher lives up to that challenge, it seems, but manages to create a serious affront to his parents’ sensibilities.

A difficulty in Playhouse on Park’s production is Jordan Sobel’s performance as Asher. He seems too likeable and guileless, so forthright and naïve, that one is hard-pressed to see him as the major artist he becomes. He seems to remain the wide-eyed child amazed by his own gift and barely able to consider how he should regard the feelings of others or his larger obligations. We might see him as a willful child or as the possessor of a talent so large it can’t be suppressed, but all the darker elements of the story—having to do with Asher’s sense of his mother’s afflictions—are rarely given sufficient dramatic weight. The notion that Asher’s art is an invocation of Sitra Achra, or the evil side of human nature, is mentioned as if a school lesson outgrown.

Of the three actors—Sobel plays Asher, all other male roles are played by Dan Shor—Stefanie Londino fares best in making Asher’s mother, Rivkeh, take on dimensions that exist beyond Asher’s view. Otherwise, the characters all seem to be painted entirely in the colors he sees them in: the Rebbe is kindly and stern; Asher’s father is at times a caricature of bullying indifference or of mystified concern; Shor is best as Kahn if only because the artist is mercurial in his approach to his pupil, at times challenging and harsh, at other times fond and encouraging. We sense that Asher never quite grasps the full weight of Kahn’s relation to art.

The tone of the whole is of a sentimental recollection in which the parents seem touchingly or comically out of date; the difficulties between the parents, having to do in part with Rivkeh’s will to continue her deceased brother’s work, come across as a minor subplot. The gravitas that Potok employs as the tone proper to the weighty struggle of religion and art finds, in this adaptation, a much more genial portrayal.

Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel) and model (Stefanie Landino)

Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel) and model (Stefanie Landino)

Discher’s vision of the play is not aided by David Lewis’ scenic design in the Playhouse thrust space. Much of the action would benefit from more freedom of movement, but in the early going many scenes occur around a table toward the back of the stage. Some of the seats in the wings are forced to regard these scenes through easels set on either side of the stage. The later scenes gain from taking place outside the Lev home, though, for a play that moves around in time and place, dictated by Asher’s memories, the action has a static quality.

In the end, the story of Asher Lev is of an artist trying to see the truth about himself. Since we can’t see his work, we can only view him in terms of his interactions with others. Though he seems satisfied with the story he tells, his audience may find themselves less so.  


My Name is Asher Lev
By Aaron Posner
Adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok
Directed by Joseph Discher

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Costume Designer: Lisa Steier; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Lighting Designer: Joseph Beumer; Associate Lighting Designer: Justin Dudzik; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Props Master/Set Dresser: Pamela Lang

Cast: Stefanie Londino, Dan Shor, Jordan Sobel

Playhouse on Park
April 24-May 12, 2019

A Story of Fathers and Sons: The Chosen Comes to Long Wharf

Preview of The Chosen, Long Wharf Theatre

Novelist Chaim Potok is best-known for stories about the clash of values between fathers and sons, particularly within the codes that govern conduct among modern Jews. His novel My Name is Asher Lev, adapted into a play by Aaron Posner, centered on a young Hasidic man trying to follow his creative inclinations as an artist within a religious tradition that forbids figural representation. Directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, the show was a strong close to the 2011-12 Long Wharf Theatre season and went on to win an Outer Critics Circle Award as Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play at New York’s Westside Theater.

The Chosen, in a new revival at the Long Wharf, may be following a similar path. The play is based on Potok’s best-known novel; in fact it made his name upon its publication in 1967. Adapted into a film and a short-lived musical, The Chosen, as a play, was first produced in 1999 at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, much as Asher Lev received its first production there. The current show repeats the teaming of Aaron Posner’s text and Gordon Edelstein’s direction, but The Chosen is less about the restrictions of remaining faithful to Judaic tradition and more about how paternal expectations find or miss their fruition in the sons of willful men.

The focus of the play is on two young men, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, who begin as rivals on the baseball field and then become friends as they grow. Their fathers, Reb Saunders and David Malter, represent two opposing value systems. Reb Saunders wants Danny to become a religious leader, but Danny wants to be a psychologist. David, a Zionist, wants his son to become a mathematician, but Reuven has interest in becoming a rabbi. Director Edelstein sees the play as “a beautiful story about the complicated relationship between parents and their children and how a friendship grows.” The tensions between the Saunders and Malter households illustrate how we sometimes “seek our fathers in places other than our own homes.”

Steven Skybell plays David Malter. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama in 1988, Skybell has been nominated by the Connecticut Critics Circle for recent performances in the area, in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at Westport Country Playhouse, where he gave a very nuanced performance as Phillip Gellberg, and in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, at Yale Repertory Theatre, where he was the Narrator and Azdak, a comical judge with perhaps a touch of Groucho. Though he has acted in the state several times, this is his debut on the Long Wharf stage.

Steven Skybell

Steven Skybell

While growing up Jewish in a small town in Texas, Skybell “knew of” the novel The Chosen without being familiar with it, but when he read the part he immediately wanted to do it. Gordon Edelstein, Skybell said, “was delighted to find out that I’m Jewish,” because it means less work in trying to explain the context of the play. And yet, Skybell added, “it’s not simply a play about Jewish issues, it’s a story about a father and a son. A moving drama about distance and closeness between generations.”

The challenge of David Malter, as a part, Skybell said, is that he’s very likeable—“almost the perfect father” who wants everything to be “beautiful and right for his son.” The script, he said, “is detailed in reality,” so that Malter, as a character, is “fully written” and not simply a foil to Reb Saunders.

Malter, through a chance meeting with Danny Saunders, becomes “almost a surrogate father” to the boy. It’s not an effort to undermine Danny’s father but rather to support Danny’s own interests. “It’s the age-old question in families. You want to like what your parents’ like but you also want to do what you want with your life.”

“Each son, in a way, desires what the other’s father wants.” A situation that Skybell sees as having great significance for the intolerant times we live in now. “The play shows the positions of two different types of Jewishness, within Judaism. And it shows that someone can be quite diametrically opposed to someone else and that there can be truth in both views. It’s not necessary to obliterate the other view.”

Previews begin this Wednesday, November 22, with the press opening on the 29th.

Long Wharf Theatre

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner, directed by Gordon Edelstein, with Ben Edelman, George Guidall, Steven Skybell, Max Wolkowitz

A Portrait of the Artist as a Boychik

Chaim Potok’s novel  My Name is Asher Lev tells the age-old tale of youthful rebellion in the name of art.  Like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, Asher is a young man with a vocation to express himself creatively.  His destiny impels him to become a painter, even at the risk of offending his parents and his religious community.  But unlike Stephen, Asher remains within his faith, an orthodox Jew with very unorthodox views on what subject matter is permissible in his art.  Thus, in a sense, Potok gets to have it both ways: rather than telling a story like Joyce tells—in which a religion of art must substitute, in Catholic Ireland, for a lost religious faith—Potok lets Asher articulate his faith in art as an aspect of his larger faith in Man, and in his own people, and in their G*d. And yet, in the end, Asher must still wrestle with his parents’ inability to understand his intentions, and walk the solitary path of the artist driven by his own conscience.

If this sounds like a romantic tale, it should.  Aaron Posner’s adaptation of My Name is Asher Lev, onstage at the Long Wharf, takes place in a world where talent is acknowledged and reaps the admiration of the world—a success story wherein the problem is not a struggle with the goyische world of art critics and buyers, but with the orthodox views that would have Asher stifle such things as his tendency to depict nudes and, even more outrageously for his family and the fictional Ladover Hassidism of which his father is a member, crucifixions.  In other words, struggle is of the essence of art in Potok’s story: if not a struggle to become an artist, than a struggle over subject matter.

The stakes are raised through introduction of the Hassidic concept of “sitra achra”: an expression for any interest that leads away from righteousness to the “other side” of the Almighty, the forbidden areas of life and thought, like the one our first parents explored so memorably in the Bible by partaking of the Tree of Knowledge.

As might be clear from all this exposition, My Name is Asher Lev, as a play, sins against the notion that one should limit exposition in theater.  The entire play is narrated by Asher, and his address to us, explaining himself, is illustrated by enacted scenes to dramatize the conflicts.  And that’s where the value of a theatrical rendering of the story becomes evident.  In contrast to a first-person novel, the play more directly lets us, if we are so inclined, see other characters’ points of view as more valid than Asher’s.  Granted, we have to believe in his sincerity, otherwise he’s simply a willful trouble-maker.  But we might question, at any point, his methods and his motivations.  And that makes for a complex, thinky night of theater.

We might say that director Gordon Edelstein has chosen to the let the conceptual aspects of the material inhere in its themes rather than in its dramatization.  The staging takes place with a cast of three on one versatile set—light and colors and sound (Eugene Lee, set; Chris Akerlid, lighting; John Gromada, sound design) all play an important and effective part in helping us feel the various stages of Asher’s journey.  And while alternations of direct address and illustrative interactions might have made for a lockstep production, Edelstein and his team make wonderful use of tableaux, using the power of retrospect to infuse simple moments—Asher’s mother’s ritual farewell to her oft-traveling husband, the coin an uncle pays for Asher’s first sold drawing, Asher’s mother waiting by the window, Asher’s interview with the Rebbe, and his first meetings with an art agent and with an artist’s model—with talismanic power.  Everything he tells us, Asher tells us for a reason, but it’s left to us to decide what the things Asher tells us show us of his character.


Key to this production is Ari Brand, memorable and marvelous as Asher.  Maintaining a confessional tone of thoughtful and considered declaration, he keeps us in the palm of his hand throughout.  Brand, darkly good-looking, earnest, passionate, is a beguiling guide to Asher’s life, but he also is able to show us the steely and unyielding aspects of Asher, even the obtuseness that makes him at times unfeeling of others.  It’s a portrayal of considerable skill and force, keeping us anchored to the play through the careful unfolding of Asher’s growth.


As Asher’s father, Ari, Mark Nelson is a cautious, serious man, very human in his frustration and disappointment with the path his only son takes, but it is as Asher’s mentor, Jacob Kahn, that he truly shines.  The attitude of the older Jewish painter to his protégé is full of gentle irony and affectionate, but also wary, admiration; it’s a finely nuanced portrayal and the scenes between Asher and his teacher are some of the most appealing in the play, as is Asher’s audience with the Rebbe (also Nelson), an important scene in which we see that Asher need not always struggle against incomprehension.  The Rebbe’s wisdom is a saving grace, but it can’t save Asher from his need to conquer Western art—which means painting nudes and an image of suffering, drawing upon the crucifixion of Christ, that offends his parents deeply.  (Asher’s insistence on figural art is a bit odd, given that this is the era of Abstract Expressionism, a time when, more than ever in the history of art, a painter could follow a proscription against images and thrive).


As Asher’s mother, Riv, Melissa Miller does fine work as well, particularly in a subplot in which Riv loses her beloved brother and then later studies to continue his work.  While accepted in her plans—indeed, the Rebbe helps her implement them—there is a sense in which Riv, like her son, has a tendency to somewhat original behavior.  Miller also adds interest to the show by briefly playing characters who are not patiently maternal and wifely—Anna, the artist’s agent who finds Asher’s art intriguing but his orthodoxy amusing, and the artist’s model who is the first woman to ever disrobe for the boy.


As a carefully delineated portrayal of a particular culture, the play is fascinating.  And in its focus on intergenerational familial struggle, and the struggle between orthodoxy and secular passions, Asher Lev takes on classic themes that, though ostensibly 1950s, feel a bit Turn of the Century.  Stalinism, in full force in this period, is invoked a few times, but not Freudianism—and yet a less pious production might have made something of the fact that, thanks to casting, every male is for Asher a father figure, and every woman, mom.


My Name is Asher Lev By Aaron Posner Adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok Directed by Gordon Edelstein

The Long Wharf Theatre May 2-27, 2012