As is true with the production of Congressional laws and sausages, making art—especially challenging and transgressive art—isn’t easy to watch. Feelings can get badly bent when visions of morality, religion and art collide. (Just consider the “piss Christ” brouhaha in 1989.)
The collision of art and religion is the core conflict in My Name Is Asher Lev, now at the Cleveland Play House. Adapted from the eponymous Chaim Potok novel and directed by Laura Kepley, this play has wonderful moments, thanks to three talented actors, when one feels the bone-deep passion of various characters. But the structure of the piece works against a more thorough exploration, leaving the whole entity less than satisfying.
Adaptor Aaron Posner attempts to encapsulate, in 90 minutes, Potok’s themes that also involve artistic honesty, self identity, community acceptance, and religious rigidity. And that’s just the short list. Clearly, no play can cover all that ground in the ways a novel can.
Asher Lev is a young man who, although a self-proclaimed observant Jew, is also a committed visual artist. His desire to capture his world, whether it be the rainy streets of his Brooklyn home or the fire in his father’s eyes, drives him to draw and paint as others are compelled to breathe.
His father is a sophisticated and worldly man who travels often in his work for the local Rebbe, but dad still doesn’t understand the lure of art that grips his son. As for Asher’s mother, she is caught between her two men and tries to placate both.
Posner’s script establishes Asher as the narrator, and while this helps move the play along its back-and-forth timeline, it ends up telling us more than it should. For instance, Asher comes out on stage at the start and pretty much profiles his entire character without allowing the audience the pleasure of discovery. This insistence on over-telling is consistent throughout the show.
Even so, the actors manage to carve out some effective scenes. As Asher, Noel Joseph Allain is focused and a bit monomaniacal in the way great artists are. But the fact that we never see his art, which we are told is superb, leaves something of a vacuum at the center. In a book it’s no big deal, but theater is largely a visual medium.
Tom Alan Robbins plays all the other male roles, crafting a stern but sensible father, a joyful Uncle, and artist Jacob Kahn, a wise mentor to Asher. Kahn spouts profundities about art at regular intervals: “You cannot lie,” “You are only responsible to your art.” These terse teachings lead Asher to the ultimate confrontation with his parents over his masterpiece, the Brooklyn Crucifixions.
Playing all the women, including an art dealer and a nude model, Elizabeth Raetz is more than capable. Unfortunately, she is hampered by the script that mostly gives mom repetitive words to say and not much to do other than a lot of mournful gazing out the window.
Placed in the wonderfully adaptable Baxter Stage space, the spare and clean set design by Antje Ellerman is a model of efficiency as a window, overhead lamps and an artist’s easel appear and disappear smoothly from above and below.
But the entire look of the stage feels too neat and ordered. As Asher says more than once, “The world isn’t pretty,” and that’s how he wants to paint it. Some of that messiness, on stage, would have reflected the tumult in Asher’s mind, as well as the disturbance ignited in his religious community once his art is seen by all.
At the conclusion, Posner finally opts for understatement and it works perfectly. If only he had tried that restraint in the previous 85 minutes.
My Name Is Asher Lev
Through April 3 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000