My Name Is Asher Lev: Theater Review

Ed Krieger
An emotionally absorbing elemental drama of conflict between the compulsion to create and traditional religious, social and family bonds. 

Chaim Potok's bestselling 1972 novel of Russian-Jewish Brooklyn family bonds comes to East Hollywood after a successful Off Broadway run.

Chaim Potok’s 1972 bestseller My Name Is Asher Lev has been deftly adapted by Aaron Posner and receives a peerless realization by a splendid cast. Posner reduces the novel to its essential conflicts, yet rather than diluting the impact he effectively intensifies the immediacy of the emotional payoffs. Winner last year of the Outer Critic Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play and the prestigious John Gassner Award, this drama may attack relatively familiar ideas in a forthright manner, but its effects manage to be both complex and direct, a concise yet deeply satisfying entertainment. It offers a moving and rich experience, along with a generous helping of theatrical guile from three players at the top of their game and a sensitive and astute director, The Fountain’s co-artistic director Stephen Sachs.

Asher Lev (Jason Karasev), growing up a “Torah Jew” in postwar Crown Heights, Brooklyn, by the age of 6 in 1952 already has been seized by his Muse, irresistibly driven to draw and to apprehend the world through the prism of his vision. His parents, Aryeh (Joel Polis) and Rivkeh (Anna Khaja), refugees from Stalin’s Soviet Union, are devout followers of the unquestioned authority of the Rebbe, and Aryeh is dedicated to a mission of committed responsibility to support and rescue oppressed Russian Jews, consigning him to constant travel for diplomacy, fundraising, building schools and reclaiming shuls. In his absences, Asher and his mother are particularly close, and she can be supportive of his gift even as his father considers it a waste of time, a distraction from study.

Asher paints his own story, tracing his development from preschooler through adolescence to very early critical and popular success by 22, as he must seek his own path to aesthetic apprenticeship and personal expression despite the painful costs to his faith and family, both of which he nonetheless deeply loves. Ultimately he learns that while creativity may be his true religion, who he is as an artist must be inextricably bound up in his identity as a Jew and as his parents’ son, an upholder of contradicting traditions to which he equally belongs.

None of this comes across as the least didactic because throughout the relish of theatrical storytelling conjures up unflagging delights. Karasev (so well remembered from Need Theatre’s Mercury Fur) has the most challenging role in persuading us to accept him playing children and teenagers of varying ages, but he holds center stage with great magnetism and conviction, always aflash with fierce obsession. (He can even make whining empathetic.) Even more flashy are the whirlwind transformations by the canny veteran Polis from loving if difficult dad to sympathetic uncle to surprisingly sage and worldly rabbi to flamboyant artist-mentor, each strikingly distinctive, all without changing his beard.

But the pulsing heart of the matter remains the deeply complicated Rivkeh, an intelligent woman who married young to a charismatic man of conviction and causes, so different and yet in so many ways so like their possessed son. Externally, she must navigate her commitments to both men through their irreconcilable conflicts, and within herself she must adapt and survive her inconsolable griefs and frustrated drives for personal fulfillment. That’s a tall order in a swift story purged of novelistic detail for the sake of narrative drive, yet Khaja, a reliably resourceful and talented actor of such economy and precision (Falling, Palace of the End, her own award-winning play on Benazir Bhutto), musters great power both manifest and suggestively unrevealed. Her contrasting portrayals of a sophisticated and callous art dealer and of a mute model who poses for Asher’s first nude studies amplifies the interlocking web of relationships to which Asher reacts, rebels and ultimately must start to embrace. 

Venue: The Fountain Theatre, East Hollywood (runs through April 19)

Cast: Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja, Joel Polis

Director: Stephen Sachs

Playwright: Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok  

Set designer: Jeffrey R. McLaughlin

Lighting designer: Ric Zimmerman

Music & sound designer: Lindsay Jones

Costume designer: Shon LeBlanc

Producers: Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor