When you've got a reclusive Hassidic kid in 1950s New York City who speaks, often annoyingly, through his sketches and paintings, you've got a provocative clash of cultural assimilation and artistic expression. Aaron Posner's stage adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel My Name Is Asher Lev brings an absorbing, retrospective story into the theater. One would assume from both Potok's novel and Stephen Sachs' direction of the play, whose run has been extended at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, that the conundrum of assimilation applies to any number of immigrant groups that continue to arrive on our shores, and that the issue of artistic freedom is part of an ongoing polemic about the nature, purpose and relevance of the fine arts in our increasingly populist culture.
The story is of a child-prodigy painter, Asher Lev (Jason Karasev), living within the confines of New York's Hassidic subculture in the 1950s. Meanwhile, across the seas, Jews are fleeing various persecutions under Joseph Stalin. In the play, Asher's impassioned father, Aryeh (Joel Polis, who triples as Asher's perky uncle as well as the sanguine local rebbe — all with impressively subtle distinctiveness), is a lobbyist to the U.S. government for the welcoming and protection of Russian Jews in the United States.
With this as a background to the story, it sounds like something between ignorance and a contradiction to suggest that the era is an almost arbitrary frame for the issues unfolding in the drama, yet that arbitrariness is also true: Even with the specific historical references expressed by Asher's father, his uncle and their rebbe, and by Asher's mother, Rifkeh (Anna Khaja), the story becomes less of a museum drama and more of a fable, which is where its enduring value resides. It's not difficult to extend the conundrums of Potok's book, and of Posner's adaptation of it, to, say, Tanzanians and Ethiopians newly entering this country, and their ensuing frictions between children trying to make their way and parents building domestic fortresses based on a far-away place called home.
The play (very much faithful to the book) opens in drama when patriarch Aryeh returns home after one of his many prolonged absences lobbying U.S. politicians on behalf of Jewish emigres to discover that his young-adult son, Asher (like his dad, wearing tzitzis prayer strings and a yarmulke cap), has been painting not only nude women but also depictions of the Crucifixion of Christ. Naturally, Asher's dad is offended. Asher's justification of free expression crashes head-on with his father's cultural-community principles. This is even worse than Ronald Reagan's son dancing ballet and speaking out on behalf of progressives.
Rivkeh, her head bound in a shawl, does what good mothers do best in such situations: She engages in anguished mediation, clutches her hands at her chest and defends her beloved son with repeated pleas of “Aryeh … Aryeh,” trying to persuade the older man to refrain from saying something everybody might regret.
The issue I have with Sachs' unarguably detailed and loving production lies in this kind of fraught melodrama. It straddles the line between classical and generic.
As Asher, Karasev is a marvelous actor who seizes our attention with charisma and idiosyncratic speech patterns, in which phrases roll into each other with an eloquence that's arch and natural at the same time. Yet, ironically for a character also named “Lev,” there is no levity to his portrayal whatsoever. His portrait of the tortured artist is as unrelenting as it is dramatic, or even traumatic.
When the play flashes back to his childhood obsession with painting and drawing, Karasev handily negotiates the transition to playing a kid with subtlety. Yet even at age 6, the child is already tormented, and will continue to depict that stereotypical artistic torment into adulthood without relief, or at least without relief in this production. Later in the play, when the family is in crisis over Asher's celebrated paintings that will, understandably, offend his parents to their core, the scale of fraught emotions catches up to the circumstances of the drama. And that's when the production explodes in the best way possible.
Khaja's portrayal of Rivkeh is a jewel, possessing layers of anguish and compassion for both her husband and their son, who causes them both such distress.
Lindsay Jones' original music and sound design eases the story's many transitions with cinematic fluidity.
And though the early broadcast of the traumas about to unfold would seem to stifle the possibility of surprise, the surprise is in how the story's tragedy and beauty emerge nonetheless, through anguish that eventually rings true.
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV | Adapted by Aaron Posner from Chaim Potok's novel | Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. | Through May 18 | (323) 663-1525 | fountaintheatre.com