Asher Lev (Jason Karasev) is the son of an Hasidic couple, Rivheh (Anna Khaja) and Aryeh (Joel Polis). How you feel about “my Name is Asher Lev” may have as much to do with how you feel about proselytizing, ultra orthodox, fundamentalists as it has to do with your appreciation of the current production at the Fountain Theatre. Personally, regardless of their stripe, I find them difficult to empathize with.
We meet Asher as a successful young artist still agonizing over his decision to become an artist despite the disapproval of his Crown Heights, ultra orthodox, Jewish community — Potok’s thinly disguised rendering of the Lubavitch sect. Even as he has taken his own artistic path and separated himself from the ultraorthodox community, the tzitzits hang below Asher’s sweater and the yarmulke is securely clipped on his head. Except for the pride they take in the achievements of Marc Chagall, the world of art is disdained by the Jewish cult of his childhood. Art is not a satisfactory goal for a Yeshiva booker’s aspiration. Oy the suffering, oy the pain the young man has had to endure from the time he shows his “gift” for drawing as a 6 year old.
Asher takes us chronologically through the pain and family conflicts, beginning at age 6. Much of the detail is conveyed strictly as narration, most likely lifted directly from Potok’s novel. This kind of narrative can be thoroughly engaging — how often have you seen and relished “Our Town?” — however, in writer Aaron Posner’s hand, it is merely a route from here to there, from time to time. Tension is described, not felt. From the beginning, Asher’s mother, is more favorably disposed, though clueless as to artistic realities. “Draw pretty things, Asher,” she says, like flowers and birds. His father, a very important proselytizing assistant to the Rebbe, is mostly outraged and sorely disappointed at his son’s artistic proclivity and his wife’s naive encouragement. Young Asher is taken to the museum, presumably the Met; he becomes fixated upon the paintings of crucifixion and the nudes. You can imagine how that went down. Oy, the family suffering. Oy, imagine a young boy being fascinated with naked bodies.
If you can divorce yourself from the religious overlay, the meat of much of the family strum und drang actually smacks of family conflict played out across cultures and throughout the ages. You do not have to be a fundamentalist to be afraid that a child’s artistic aspirations will lead to a lifetime of struggle and difficulty. Nor does intramural parental conflict over a child’s direction only occur in religious households. On the other hand, the struggle focused on here is the impossibility of being an observant Jew and of the world at large. Watch them walking on a hot Saturday morning in August, in Los Angeles, wearing fur hats and long black coats and you know the answer: you cannot live successfully in both worlds.
Incredibly, in his adolescence, Asher’s disapproving community, the rebbe, and his father allow him to be introduced to Jacob Kahn, a formerly Hassidic, now secular and successful artist. He mentors young Asher with a challenging hand further exposing him to a world that includes those nudes and crucifixions. Asher is drawn like a moth to the fire. What does he paint for his first solo exhibition? Several canvases entitled, “Brooklyn Crucifixion,” what else? While Chagall is celebrated in the community, no one (including writer Posner) chooses to remember that Chagall produced both lithographs and paintings of crucifixions, as have other Jewish artists. Asher’s agony does not end with his success and he is forever stuck in the never-never land of identifying with the community that turns its back on him yet not allowing himself, unlike his mentor Jacob Kahn, to embrace the artist’s world.
The Fountain Theatre is one of Los Angeles’ reliable gems. And Stephen Sachs consistently directs with a sure hand. Without being nitpicking it is hard to find fault with the acting or production, yet the word that most easily leaps to mind is soporific. Set in the 1950’s Asher Lev creaks as though it is being seen through an old lens.
Potok’s 1972 novel was a best seller, and borrowed from his own experience coming from an orthodox community and choosing an artistic direction. However, he found resolution by stepping his religion down to conservatism (he briefly was a rabbi) and coexisting with both worlds. Posner’s adaptation paints the picture of a spoiled child who worships his own “gift” and believes it entitles him to run the family. The parents are stereotypes which make the freedoms they do grant Asher not quite believable. The issues of defying the grip of one’s ultraorthodox community and family may resonate more fully for someone whose background is closer to that experience, but that alone does not excuse the monotone of Posner’s writing or elevate the work.