My Name is Asher Lev
Through May 27 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. (203) 787-4282, longwharf.org.
It might seem incredibly simplistic, obvious and reductive to compare My Name is Asher Lev to The Diary of Anne Frank. Theatrically speaking, however, the comparison has been forced by the way both these books have been adapted and staged.
For the Long Wharf production of My Name is Asher Lev, set designer Eugene Lee has made Asher Lev's nondescript living/working environment — which must convey the sense of both the character's boyhood home and his art studio — an attic space, with a wide bare floor. There's a diary sense to how Aaron Posner has adapted Chaim Potok's novel — Lev introduces scenes starkly in the first person, then dissolves into it and acts it out. Finally, there's the casting of Ari Brand, who played young Peter in The Diary of Anne Frank at Westport Country Playhouse last year. In both roles, Brand brings an intensity and resignation which belies any boyishness we might associate with the characters' ages.
My Name is Asher Lev ends with a personal emotional devastation rather than a holocaust, but Aaron Posner's script version of Chaim Potok's novel wants to have the same effect on audiences as the Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett warhorse adaptation of the Frank diary. Both are sturdy all-purpose melodramas that seek to universalize Jewish struggles for wider audiences. In particular, My Name is Asher Lev becomes not so much a detailed glimpse into the Hasidic culture of mid-20th-century Brooklyn as a story of a young man growing into himself and questioning the authority figures around him.
A lot of director Gordon Edelstein and his cast's choices in this production follow wise guidelines, which playwright Posner (who directed some of this play's earliest productions, in Philadelphia and Milwaukee, himself) sets down in his preface to the published script, the most important one being that "simpler is better" in terms of staging. Posner also suggests that Asher's much-discussed drawings and paintings never actually be seen ("Blank pages. Empty frames. Unpainted canvases.") and that the lead actor should not go overboard in the scenes when the character is meant to be six, seven or ten years old. Edelstein's production not only follows this advice, it's in synch with other small-cast, uncluttered, intimate story-driven dramas Edelstein has done at Long Wharf, including recent works by Athol Fugard. Edelstein knows how to fill an empty mainstage with action, even when the thrust of a scene is a long explanation of the artistic process, and the characters' more visceral passions are being kept in check.
Ari Brand carrries My Name is Asher Lev confidently, keeping his story straight and clear. Melissa Miller and Mark Nelson support him, with an impressive fluidity of style and movement, as a succession of grown-ups (mainly Asher's parents) who influence, interact, and connect with this emerging artist. The chronological, storytelling structure of the play allows for little more than a straightforward recap of the main plot points of Potok's famous novel. But a tight cast, and Edelstein's expert direction, fill in the passion and depth of Potok's prose, rounding out the experience and exposing fresh audiences to the basic glories of this well-conceived coming-of-age story.
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