The taut canvas of 'My Name Is Asher Lev'
By Nelson Pressley
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Art-world provocations have been a running theme with the Round House Theatre this season, beginning with an almost sadistically slick update of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and continuing through the race-based clash of "Permanent Collection." Now religion gets into the mix with "My Name Is Asher Lev," about a nice Jewish boy who shocks his community by painting deeply personal crucifixions.
The play is an adaptation of Chaim Potok's 1972 novel -- that's Round House's chief business these days, staging literary works -- and Aaron Posner has sensibly compressed Potok's book into a 95-minute drama for a mere three actors. The novel is written in the first person, so while Jeremy Skidmore's taut production features an imposing art studio set by Tony Cisek and evocative design work by Dan Covey (lights) and Matthew M. Nielson (sound), it still leans heavily on narration by Asher Lev, the controversial young painter.
Even though Posner sticks close to Potok's simple declarative language, you can see the nose for drama that has made him a successful director. (The recent "Macbeth" and "Arcadia" at the Folger were his.) This adaptation has a knack for lifting nearly wholesale the terse, telling dramatic exchanges in the book that efficiently drive the conflict forward.
That conflict is elemental, and brutally hard to reconcile. Child prodigy Asher Lev, played with fierce inquisitiveness by Alexander Strain, is seen as a very young boy and through his splashy debut in the New York art scene. He is obsessed by drawing, despite the disapproval of his devout and influential Jewish father. It's the 1950s: Asher's father is part of the network rehabilitating Jewish centers in Europe, and Stalin has emerged as the new anti-Semitic threat. Evil is not an abstraction for this man (Adam Heller, stern and intimidating), who worries that his son's painting is foolishness, or worse.
Adding to the world of hurt is Asher's mother, an activist and intellectual torn between her son and husband. The centrality of the role, and the way her understandably extreme reactions drive Asher's artistic fate, isn't quite thrown into full relief here. It's not an acting problem: Lise Bruneau seems more than warm enough, with streaks of torment. Key parts of this character just seem stuck in the book.
On the other hand, Heller has a splendidly charismatic figure on his hands in Jacob Kahn, the artist who rigorously mentors Asher. Kahn's proclamations are the soul of the piece, theatrical lectures that fill the young painter with discipline and inspiration. Heller gives a wily, entertaining performance: The show's wit and flair peak in this turn.
The rest is high seriousness, though Bruneau -- handling several roles, as does Heller -- provides a bit of mischief. This is religion vs. art in a young man who believes in both.
Strain's gift for discontent is well used here. He has an appealing sense of gravity, which can be wry or deeply intense; as Asher Lev it's that and more -- a case study, as Potok wanted, in apparently irreconcilable differences.
By Aaron Posner, adapted from the Chaim Potok novel. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Costumes, Ren LaDassor. About 95 minutes.