My Name is Asher Lev

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

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Last year, the final play in the Long Wharf season—My Name is Asher Lev—went onto New York and recently won the Outer Critic’s Circle Award for Best New Off-Broadway Play. This year, the final play has already won a Tony Award and is a highly respected and successful play. In other words, Long Wharf patrons will not be making the kind of discovery that thrilled so many last year, but that’s not a complaint. Clybourne Park is so good it’s a welcome cap to an interesting season that began in the fall with the premiere of Satchmo at the Waldorf. Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park takes its impetus from Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play A Raisin in the Sun. As you may remember, that play, from 1959, dramatizes the efforts of a black family named Younger to improve their lot in life—an inheritance may permit them to buy a house in Clybourne Park, an all-white neighborhood formerly off-limits. Karl Lindner, a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, tries to talk the Youngers out of the purchase.

In Part One of his play, Norris shows us what Russ (Daniel Jenkins) and Bev (Alice Ripley), the couple selling the house, are like, and has Lindner (Alex Moggridge) arrive to try to talk them out of selling. Norris further extends the tensions by introducing a handful of other characters: Jim (Jimmy Davis), a well-meaning priest invited by Bev to talk to Russ who seems unable to overcome his grief for Kenneth, their recently deceased son; Francine (Melle Powers), the black housekeeper and her husband Albert (LeRoy McClain) who arrives to pick her up from work and gets drawn into the goings-on in the house; and Betsy (Lucy Owen), Lindner’s deaf wife who provides some comic relief to the situation.

The situation is that Russ has a considerable chip on his shoulder against his neighbors for their treatment of Kenneth upon his return from Korea. As Russ and Lindner face off, the priest comes between them and Bev tries to keep things civil. Francine and Albert, forced into the role of token representatives of their race, can only be made more and more uncomfortable as the argument unfolds. Key to it all is Lindner’s insistence that people should stay with “their own kind.”

Norris—with deft characterization—makes clear to us what is at stake for each character and lets us be the kind of judges who must throw the first stone, or not. Whose side are we on? It’s easy to be sympathetic to Russ, and Jenkin’s performance is naturalism to the nth degree. He simply is Russ and we’re in his house, watching him barely suffer the others until he finally explodes. Ripley’s Bev is brittle and bright the way such women often are, living mostly behind a façade. Davis as the priest is friendly and likeable, but subtly hard to like. Moggridge’s Lindner is first-rate: earnest, overbearing, aggrieved and comically stilted in his effort to be polite: the scene when he keeps speaking about not being allowed to speak is pitch perfect. The situation is so uncomfortable it’s easy to feel like a silent guest amazed at what unfolds.

As the couple in the hot seat simply because of their race, Powers and McClain register well the roles within roles devised for them—first, as hired help who are supposed to feel like friends, but not too familiar; then, as a different race who are supposed to be appreciative of their social betters, without being servile; then, as a couple who have their own differences about how to represent their difference from Bev’s condescension and Lindner’s racism. It may all sound very complex, but Norris is a wiz at getting it all in, and director Eric Ting makes certain his cast gets it all across. We’re with them every step of the way, without ever feeling like the points are being spelled out.

And if the pace of Part One feels about perfect, the pace of Part Two truly is. Norris is good at giving us the mannerisms of 1959—and Jenkins is a tour de force unto himself—but he is truly inspired in giving us “us”: the liberal, educated, well-meaning, self-consciously enlightened persons of 2009. The dialogue and its performance are so spot on, it’s easy to understand why Ting and the Long Wharf wanted to do the play: one imagines that, in a little while, 2009 may begin to fade away. We deserve to see the thirtyish denizens of the early 21st century while they’re still fresh in our minds.

This is great ensemble work and everyone captures the comic potential of their parts. Particularly effective is Owen’s Lindsey, a super-pregnant woman who crouches splay-legged upon chairs as if ready to drop a litter at any moment. Her delivery has the studied “correctness” of the kind of privilege under duress that may well be the distinctive characteristic of her generation. As her well-meaning partner, Steve, Moggridge is a wonder as the voice of reason in the lion’s den. He wants to take exception to his and his wife’s treatment by Lena and Kevin, a black couple who represent Clybourne Park, now an in-demand black neighborhood slated by economic forces for gentrification via white buyers like Lindsey and Steve. And once Steve starts down the path of picking at what he sees as racist assumptions on the part of the black couple—well, it’s obvious there’s not going to be any graceful way out.

Once the race card gets played it stays played—and can only lead to racist and sexist jokes aimed at nothing so much as the pretense of enlightenment. Lindner, in 1959, could feel entitled to speak for a white consensus—even though it annoys Russ and is an affront to Francine and Albert. But in 2009, the notion of consensus quickly dissipates. Even the couples are not united because sexual politics have a way of coming into play just when you thought it was safe to say “we.”

It’s still the case, even in 2009, that the black characters don’t get as much to say as the white characters—but in 2009 they have even more wherewithal to let us feel it. As Lena, Melle Powers keeps the comic pitch high—she knows how to make graciousness snitty. And McClain, as both Albert and Kevin, gets in digs that go a long way to show a certain amused detachment. Kevin’s anger, when it comes, is the unleashing of a street attitude we know he works hard to hide.

As a play about the social abyss underlying our riven culture’s attitudes about race and rights and belonging and getting ahead, Clybourne Park knows whereof it speaks. Everyone is a bit foolish, everyone is a bit out of their depth. As facilitators to the purchase and renovation that the white couple aim at, Tom (Jimmy Davis) and Kathy (Ripley) bring in further gaffes and gripes to keep things zinging. And then there’s Jenkins as Dan, a garrulous worker dude who has made a discovery in the backyard.

That discovery has to do with a further theme in Clybourne Park. Not only is racism, in one form or another, a staple of American life, so is the demand that some part of our society defend our society—which often means attacking other cultures and political entities for reasons not exactly transparent. Kenneth is not a casualty of war, but a casualty of demobbed socialization. Whether in 1959 or 2009, the conflicted feelings about war, like those about race, remain very much relevant, haunting and possibly shattering any provisional peace.

Clybourne Park is a play as real as any town meeting in New Haven, where the issues of who gets what is liable to come up. Don’t miss it. And if you saw it at Playwright’s Horizon a few years ago, don’t miss Eric Ting’s staging, this inspired cast, Frank Alberino’s wonderful set, and your fellow citizen’s reactions at the Long Wharf.

Clybourne Park By Bruce Norris Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Frank Alberino; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau; Sound Design: Elizabeth Rhodes; Production Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: James Calleri, CSA; ASL Consultant: Karen Josephson; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis

Long Wharf Theatre May 8-June 2, 2013

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