Currently extended at the Westside Theatre on West 43rd Street NYC, Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel, adapted by Aaron Posner, resounds with the conflicts between the insular world of religion, Hasidic Jew vs. the freedoms imparted to become a true artist. From the time Asher Lev is 3, he draws; by the time he is 6 his Crayola companions have become the great divider to a father who spends his time traveling for the Rebbe to create synagogues in Europe. Drawing! “It’s nariskeit “(foolishness), says his father.
But if little Asher Lev was born to express himself through his art, expose his feelings and emotions, what’s a young Hasidic boy to do to fit in? The rift that continues to grow is heartbreaking to his parents even though the Rebbe is willing to give his blessings.
The story takes place in a Brooklyn apartment in the 1950s where Asher Lev, convincingly played by Ari Brand as a young boy growing into a young man, acts as both narrator and protagonist, moving the story along in flashback, a son who desperately wants to practice his religion but is torn between that religion that is unforgiving to those who stray. His father, Aryeh Lev, Mark Nelson, who also assumes roles as the Rebbe, artist Jacob Kahn and Asher’s Uncle Yakkov, is well suited as a loving father who doesn’t understand his son’s needs, and just edgy enough as the mentor Kahn to young Asher. Asher’s mother, Rivkeh, (Jenny Bacon) is all too sugary, sweet as she tries to bridge the gap between the conflicts of father and son. But what is a mother to do with a “prodigy in payos?” (earlocks)
The inner turmoil of a gifted young man who sees the world through the eyes of an artist is assuaged when he meets artist Jacob Kahn, a non practicing Jew, who gives the next 5 years to Asher helping to mold him into the great artist he becomes, mentoring and introducing him to a high class Madison Avenue gallery owner (also played by Jenny Bacon, who takes on the role as a nude model). The gap widens between Asher and his parents as he must draw crucifixions and nudes to better understand, reflect and comment on life. He finally leaves to travel to Europe, to grow and understand his gift, returning to find himself one of the hottest, sought after artists of the era. However, his art and life in the Hasidic community can no longer survive in tandem; nor can his relationship with his parents after he paints them nailed to crucifixes to pour out his anguish.
Potok’s commentary is about life, religion, art, family and tradition and being truthful to oneself. The play moves swiftly and intelligently under the direction of Gordon Edelstein. The apartment set is designed by Eugene Lee, with lighting by James F. Ingalls and costumes by Ilona Somogyl. Running time is 90 minutes.