A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Hasidim
“My Name is Asher Lev” is currently exploring issues of art, religion, cultural identity, family and authenticity at Florida Studio Theatre. Aaron Posner’s 90-minute play is an adaptation of Chaim Potok’s 370-page philosophical novel. As a distillation of thought and spirit, it ranks with Ketti Frings’s adaptation of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel.” (Posner also turned Chekov’s The Seagull into “Stupid [email protected]#$ Bird” and did a mean stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion.” Is there anything this guy can’t do?) But I digress.
The title character is a dyed-in-the-wool prodigy. Natural talent oozes out of Asher Lev (Ben Rosenbach); by the time the lad can talk, he starts to draw and does it well. Just to complicate matters, he’s growing up in a Hasidic Orthodox Jewish household in Brooklyn in the late 1940s and early ’50s. His father, Aryeh (Nathan Kaufman), is constantly on the move helping Jews in the wreckage of World War II. His mother, Rivkeh (Naama Potok—the author’s daughter), is a sweet soul who goes slightly mad when her beloved brother dies. They encourage Asher’s talent—and try to steer him away from crucifixions and nudes. At the Rabbi’s urging, they enroll Asher in private art classes taught by Jacob Kahn, a non-observant Jew but a true believer in the church of Abstract Expressionism.
This wisecracking art guru knows a genius when he sees it and gets to work on Asher’s raw talent.
Khan preaches the gospel of personal vision. Not style, but the alchemy by which an artist transmutes base experience and makes it his own. The first commandment: “Don’t be a whore.” Don’t sell out—or try to look the part. The second commandment: “Have a complete desire.” Go all the way, in other words. If you hate somebody, paint your hate. Hold nothing back. Use everything. The final commandment? “Be a great artist. It’s the only justification for all the pain you’re about to cause.”
Inevitable pain. Because personal vision is unmediated. A great artist basically lets the paintings out—and doesn’t edit, censor, shape or soften what emerges. Kahn’s philosophy is the dead opposite of Asher’s father’s—who once told his son, “An animal can’t help it! A human being can always help it!”
Kahn’s goal is to get Asher to the point where he can’t help it. Where the images emerge from his mind and hand as a kind of automatic writing. To that end, Kahn drills Asher on art history and technique to make the process instinctive—and that includes the crucifixions that intrigued him as a child.
The lesson pays off. And Asher pays for it.
When the time finally comes to paint his mother’s sacrifice and pain. Asher knows that only the image of a crucifixion can capture it. And he paints her nailed to a cross in a two-part “Brooklyn Crucifixion” series that scandalizes his Hasidic community, estranges his parents and makes him an exile.
This is not a portrait of the artist as a young self-brander. “My name is Asher Lev” pivots on a notion of the artist so old-fashioned it borders on the radical. Asher’s caught between two religions—a jealous God on the one hand, and an anarchic talent on the other.
Posner distills Potok’s complicated source material into a taut memory play. We get the big picture, the broad strokes—and zero distractions. Director Jason Cannon honors that intention. He basically locks you in a room with a single-minded genius who gives you a piece of his mind with relentless focus.
Asher addresses us directly, continually reminding us “My name is Asher Lev”—evidently, fighting words in certain circles. The first-person narrative shows a self-directed mind, not selfish or self-absorbed. Kudos to Rosenbach for his white-hot performance.
Props also to Kaufman and Potok, who do multiple duties in this three-actor play. Kaufman is Asher’s father; his bubbly uncle; a rabbi; and a chain-smoking Kahn. Potok takes turns as the mother; an art dealer; and an artist’s model. Soul portrayals, never one-note.
Bruce Price’s set design has the minimalist weirdness of an old “Outer Limits” episode. Enough detail to suggest but no more. Donna Riggs costumes avoid any obvious period look. Nostalgia is never the point.
Along with a portrait of the artist, the play offers a finely drawn portrait of post-World War II American Hasidic culture. No strawman arguments here. The tug-of-war between art and God is fairly matched—with a tension that could easily apply to many other faiths. It’s easy to say Asher’s talent comes from God. But he still pays a price for it.
This is a smart, honest theater. It goes after your mind, but doesn’t spare your heart.