Does an artist have a responsibility to anything other than his or her art? In Chaim Potok’s novel, “My Name is Asher Lev,” a young chasidic painter in Brooklyn discovers that his artistic talent clashes irreconcilably with the dictates of his family and community.
Aaron Posner’s stage version of the beloved novel, which wowed critics in New Haven last year, finally comes to the New York stage. Directed by Gordon Edelstein, “My Name is Asher Lev” opens next week at the Westside Theatre with Potok’s daughter, Naama, understudying the female roles in the cast.
Unlike Potok’s first novel, “The Chosen,” which dealt with the contrast between Modern Orthodox and chasidic values, “My Name is Asher Lev” took on the conflict between the ultra-Orthodox and secular worlds. Both spheres are embodied within the bewildered, painfully shy character of Asher (Ari Brand) whose imperious father (Mark Nelson) has devoted his life to saving oppressed Jews from the Soviet regime, and whose fragile mother (Jenny Bacon) is utterly dependent on her husband and son for emotional support. Despite a surprisingly sympathetic rebbe, who connects Asher with a famous painter who nurtures his artistic ability, the boy ultimately must choose between his chasidic identity and a skyrocketing international career.
The novelist, born Herman Harold Potok in the Bronx, died in 2002. While he was descended from chasidic dynasties, he raised his family in Philadelphia in an observant Conservative Jewish lifestyle. He began painting as a teenager before he turned to writing, a shift that occurred after reading Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.” His most successful novel was “The Chosen,” which was a long-running New York Times bestseller and became a staple of high school English classes.
The playwright, who is the founder of the Arden Theater Company in Philadelphia, first met Potok in the late 1990s, when he approached the novelist about doing a stage adaptation of “The Chosen.” That production, which premiered in 1999, led to more than three dozen productions by other theater companies. The success of “The Chosen” sparked Posner’s interest in other works of Potok, especially “Asher Lev,” which Posner gained permission from Potok’s widow, Adena, to adapt. The resulting 90-minute, one-act play was produced by more than a dozen theater companies before it came to New Haven last year and was lauded by Anita Gates of The New York Times as an “economical, almost painfully potent drama.”
The appeal of “Asher Lev,” Posner speculated, derives from its universality. “So many people feel a significant disconnect from the family that they grew up in. A lot of people feel that who they are — psychologically, spiritually, sexually — doesn’t match who they grew up as.” Asher’s parents, he said, also struggle deeply. “They may cause a lot of pain to our hero, but they’re not villains. They have deep conviction and deep compassion.”
Posner noted that Potok is “not a pyrotechnic author,” explaining that the weight and meaning of his stories “gradually accrete over time.” He streamlined the play to bring out the essential theme, which he called the main character’s “attempt to remain a religious Jew and also a genius-level painter.” Besides the actor playing the main character, he opted for only two other actors to play all the other figures in Asher’s life, and to personify the “forces” that war for control of Asher’s soul.
None of the paintings, Posner decided, would actually be visible on stage. “If you’re doing a play about Picasso or van Gogh, we carry images of those paintings in our heads, so you have to show them. But this play is not about painting, per se, but about the drive to paint.” The playwright thus left it to the audience to “paint in their own brains the most spectacular paintings that they can.”
The lead actor, Ari Brand, was slated to appear on Broadway in 2009 as the understudy for the main character in Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound” before the production was abruptly canceled. He is the son of an Israeli piano prodigy, Natan Brand, whose own father, a heart surgeon in Jerusalem, frowned on his son’s choice of career. Brand said that he understands what it means to have a “predilection to be an artist, to do what you were meant to do.” At the same time, he is sympathetic to the fact that the chasidic community in the play “needs to construct their own image in a particular way” and is thus “rightfully afraid” of the secular world that undermines its values and even holds it up to ridicule.
His favorite scene in the play, Brand said, is the one that comes right before the play’s climactic gallery opening. Asher knows how deeply betrayed his parents will feel upon their first glimpse of the stupefying, boundary-breaking canvas (spoiler alert: it’s his mother on the cross) that he has created.
While Potok did not write plays, it felt to his daughter like “closing a poetic circle” when she was cast in a play based on one of his works. Naama, who took time off from her acting career to take care of her father near the end of his life, sees “Asher Lev” as a depiction of “what happens when children and parents love each other deeply but parents find it inconceivable that their children won’t live their lives with the same values.”
Throughout the course of the play, she said, Asher experiences an intensifying range of negative reactions from his family and community — from “disbelief to intolerance to expulsion.” The main question of the play, she said, is, “What happens when one’s self and identity bump into the confines of the very world that is sheltering and providing for that person?”
Adena Potok, who edited her husband’s writings throughout his career, recalled that he talked repeatedly in lectures and essays about his concept of the “core-to-core cultural confrontation,” which he saw in “geometrical” terms. Realizing that most people live in “subcultures within larger cultures,” the author theorized that it was only those who develop a deep knowledge both of their subculture and of the larger culture who can create some sort of “melding” between the two. Those who don’t know their subculture but know only the majority culture inevitably “leave their subculture behind, like those American Jewish authors who,” Adena observed, “use chicken liver to represent the Jewish community.”
The main character in “Asher Lev” develops an acute understanding of both the Jewish religion and the secular world, Adena noted. But living a double life proves to be a titanic challenge, even for someone who is astoundingly creative. “He doesn’t know if what he has is a curse or a gift — all he knows is that he has to live with it and find a way of moving in the world.”
“My Name is Asher Lev” runs through March 3 at the Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St. Performance times vary, but are typically Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3. For tickets, $36-$79, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.