The best playwrights -- Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, Tony Kushner and Nilo Cruz are just a few from a long list -- create richly specific worlds laced with more broadly resonant themes. One needn’t be of those worlds to be transported by their stories and connect deeply with the issues the playwrights are exploring.
In adapting Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel My Name Is Asher Lev for the stage, Aaron Posner tries to conjure that magic mixture of specificity and universality. Obviously, for some audiences, Posner succeeds: After all, the play ran in New York for nine months in 2012-2013, and it won the Outer Critics Circle Award as best new Off-Broadway play.
Yet those who don’t know much about the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn in the 1950s may be a bit baffled by GableStage’s new production of My Name Is Asher Lev, not because of anything director Joseph Adler or his talented cast have done but because the play itself doesn’t make that involving, transcendent leap.
Because Posner chose to have Asher Lev (Etai BenShlomo) narrate his story, as the character does in Potok’s novel, My Name Is Asher Lev comes off as a multi-part monologue with interspersed scenes. The effect renders large chunks of the play static; it’s as though an extraordinarily talented, controversial painter is delivering a lecture about his life.
Asher reveals himself to be a young man obsessed since boyhood with his burgeoning artistic impulse -- his “gift,” as he describes it. Though his father Aryeh (Avi Hoffman) and mother Rivkeh (Laura Turnbull) aren’t truly supportive of their only child’s obvious talent, Rivkeh takes Asher to see great works of art at museums while Aryeh is off traveling in service of the Rebbe and the Hasidic community. Her gesture backfires, as Asher begins to draw images of Jesus, the crucifixion and nudes.
The play examines the lifelong emotional tug-of-war between Asher and his father, and between religious beliefs and artistic principles that run counter to those beliefs. Rivkeh is caught in the middle, a fragile woman devastated by the death of her beloved brother and torn by the ongoing conflict between her husband and son. Her suffering becomes the subject of one of his most famous paintings, Brooklyn Crucifixion, a work of art that turns the family’s rift into a chasm.
In the GableStage production, Hoffman gets to demonstrate his versatility as he plays the unyielding Aryeh, Aryeh’s warmer brother, the elderly Rebbe and the outspoken Jacob Kahn, a non-observant Jew who becomes Asher’s artistic mentor. The actor uses a number of Hebrew words and phrases, only some of which are clear in context (the repeated Ribbono shel Oylom is not). Turnbull has a brief turn as a nude model and a far more interesting one as Anna Schaeffer, a gallery owner who becomes Asher’s enthusiastic dealer. As Rivkeh, she is somewhat constrained by the way the character is written, fussing and mourning and worrying as Rivkeh tries unsuccessfully to please her judgmental husband and headstrong son.
Except when he’s playing Asher as a child, BenShlomo paints a portrait of a tightly wound artist, an observant Jew determined to follow the dictates of his “gift” no matter what the cost. Feeling empathy for this Asher, in the face of his emotional coolness and hurtful behavior, becomes difficult. Nor does it help that, despite all the talk of his genius and controversial subject matter, none of the character’s art makes an appearance in the play.
Potok was, in addition to being a successful novelist and rabbi, a talented artist. His painting The Brooklyn Crucifixion suggests the content and style of Asher’s fictional work. The impact of that piece is far greater than the cumulative effect of the stage version of My Name Is Asher Lev.