by Aaron Posner
Adapted from the novel by Chiam Potok
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Starring Ari Brand, Mark Nelson and Jenny Bacon
Westside Arts on 43rd off 9th Ave

Reviewed by David Spencer

Though I haven't yet read Chiam Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev, it's quite easy to see why so many people over the decades since its publication in 1972 have found it so affecting and so strong a point of identification—because Aaron Posner's 2009 stage adaptation, just now arriving off-Broadway after a good deal of regional success, does a very skilled job of dramatizing its characters and themes. It tells the story of the title character (Ari Brand)—more specifically Ari himself tells us his story; which is that of a young man who is compelledf at a very early age to draw, to—as he will begin to underastand and articulate as he getys older—dedicate his life to art. The problem is, he's from a Hassidic family, and his father Aryeh (Mark Nelson) sees drawing as a time-wasting distraction from more important studies. His mother Rivkeh (Jenny Bacon) understanding both sides of the equation, to some limited degree, is torn between them. This is only the beginning of the story, which evolves unexpectedly, if you don't know it, and becomes a study in heartbreak and irony, as others get involved—in particular the community's head rabbi and a renowned Jewish artist who becomes Asher's teacher and mentor. (In addition to playing the parents, Nelson and Bacon play all supporting roles.)

Gorden Edelstein has echoed the play's eloquent economy in his direction, and his trio of actors find just the right timbre to convey the message and the culture, with especial kudos to Mark Nelson, always something of a natural force but here giving one of his most essential performances.

Naturally the story will resonate with anyone who has ever sacrificed comfort or family to pursue a life in the arts, but clearly it also strikes a chord with anyone whose sense of self-definition has forced them to break away from an expectation that they will follow a contradictory or prohibitive tradition. And it probably strikes a chord with those who've always wanted to and never found the nerve. And implicitly it examines the difference between the two. Which makes it a that can leave you uplifted or bereft or both at the same time. Drama doesn't often get richer than that…

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