Joseph Discher

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

Down on the Farm

Review of A Moon for the Misbegotten, Playhouse on Park

Eugene O’Neill’s late play, A Moon for the Misbegotten features comedy, poetry, strong characters able to speak their minds as well as dissemble, and O’Neill’s characteristic effort to plumb the psychology of the defeated and despairing, or “misbegotten.” The play presents a wonderfully complex use of plots and feints and bluffs, of long-standing grievance and hard grief, of friendship and filial affection, and, through it all, an unerring sense of its characters’ truths. And, of course, booze.

While not a comedy, the play ends on an upbeat, with a resonant sense of forgiveness. The path to that moment is tangled and, at times, dark, but the Playhouse on Park production, directed by Joseph Discher, keeps us in the light, whether of the full moon two would-be lovers—Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson) and James Tyrone, Jr. (Anthony Marble)—gaze into, or the rising dawn of a new day at the play’s close.

Set in Connecticut in 1923, the play offers Phil Hogan (Conan McCarty), a down-at-heels farmer, a mini-tyrant whose sons leave him and the unforgiving tenant farm he works. Mike (Michael Hinton), the youngest of the three, is stealing away as the play opens, abetted by his bossy sister Josie. Mike has hopes of the priesthood and tries to reform Josie from her wayward ways. Their exchange establishes Josie as the woman in possession, the only member of the family able to handle their demanding father and so she remains behind. It also establishes her as a woman with no patience for the Church nor for virtuous modesty.

Phil Hogan (Conan McCarty), Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Phil Hogan (Conan McCarty), Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Phil Hogen and his daughter Josie make a lively pair. As played by Conan McCarty, Phil is a likeable lover of blarney, always ready to bemoan his lot or badger an enemy—which includes his, in his view, no-account sons. He spars with Josie constantly, but there’s no mistaking his admiration for her strong will and no-nonsense grasp of situations. Elise Hudson’s Josie, while not nearly as roughly favored as the part calls for, is tall and imposing and thoroughly believable as a daughter who could give her aging father a thrashing as well as a tongue-lashing. Her well-sustained brogue makes music of her every utterance.

The rough spot in the show is Anthony Marble’s James Tyrone, Jr. Certainly possessed of the kind of looks that make us believe Tyrone works on the stage, Marble captures Tyrone's hammy self-importance, but doesn’t quite conjure the haunted regions of Tyrone’s heart. His best part is the lengthy confession to Josie, in a Pietà-like configuration in Act Three, that makes us take the measure of his disgust with himself and his need for love. Marble registers Tyrone’s charm and his alcoholism, but, in this short run, hasn't yet found the resources of bitterness the part calls for.

Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson), James Tyrone, Jr. (Anthony Marble) (photo: Joel Abbott)

Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson), James Tyrone, Jr. (Anthony Marble) (photo: Joel Abbott)

It should be said that these are Irish Catholics and a definite sense of sin and redemption is fully woven by O’Neill into his characters. Josie, in this context, has to go from Magdalen to Madonna, and Hudson manages to do so without ever losing sight of the simple country girl trying to stand by her man—which includes, finally, the failings of her father. Phil Hogan’s schemes, while meaning well, have the potential to go far awry and that’s the tension that hangs over this long day’s journey from a September noon to the following dawn.

Emily Nichols’ scenic design provides a realized space for the action, with a porch that commands a dirty yard, complete with serviceable large boulder, and a makeshift bedroom for Josie on the side of the house. Lighting by Christopher Bell makes for a very bright moon during the nighttime hours, but with nice soft undertones that eventually give way to tentative dawn. Joel Abbott’s sound design adds touches of birdsong to the morning after and, since the real star of an O’Neill play is the language, ensures that voices, even at their most conversational, are clear. Joseph Discher’s direction uses the space well with movement and physicality, such as Josie and Phil’s manhandling of T. Stedman Harder (Thomas Royce Daniels), a smug rival for the land.

A Moon for the Misbegotten is alive with a family dynamic that makes the Hogans seem heroic in their staunch appeal, in the end, to their own better natures. The play’s fatalism, in avoiding a happier ending, keeps within the dimension of reality, as opposed to romance. And yet O’Neill is a major figure in the view that the stage is where the heart unburdens itself for the sake of fellow feeling, even if that ultimately changes nothing.


A Moon for the Misbegotten
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Joseph Discher

Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Costume Designer: Collette Benoit; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Properties: Pamela Lang; Stage Manager: Corin Killins

Cast: Thomas Royce Daniels, Michael Hinton, Elise Hudson, Anthony Marble, Conan McCarty


Playhouse on Park
February 15-March 5, 2017