'My Name Is Asher Lev' struggles to find its way

AsherLev1A.jpgIn a three-person play, especially when two of those people play multiple roles, everyone must work together seamlessly and be completely believable. 

When one person is off, it throws the play. And that's what happens in "My Name is Asher Lev" at Westside Theatre in Manhattan.

Ari Brand (TV's "White Collar") as Asher is excellent. He is earnest and intelligent as a young man reared to be a Talmudic scholar -- but he has the soul of an artist, and always has.

Asher is forever at odds with his father, who works for the rabbi, and comes from a long line of Talmudic scholars who have worked for generations of rabbis.

Mark Nelson, a veteran stage actor, as his father, the rabbi and the artist who mentors Asher, is excellent. When he slips from one hat to another, adds a scarf or a jacket, he completely slips into the other character.

As the rabbi, his English is more heavily weighted with Yiddish. As the father, his face is tinged with disappointment. And as the artist, his determination to teach his charge, and to help this incredible talent emerge is palpable. Nelson is completely believable in each role.

Then there is Jenny Bacon, a stage actor, playing the mother and the art dealer. Bacon, who has some solid credits, is likely fine in other roles. But she is miscast as the mother, her primary role. Her accent is not uniform, and there seems to be no chemistry between her and the two men in her life.
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The story -- of an artist who just needs to create, and of a son not living up to his father's expectations -- is universal. Like all such stories, it's best told from the individual. Asher must be who he is. 

His father needs to be who he is and travel the world for his beloved rabbi, helping Jews set up yeshivas. The mother is torn between her husband and son, and has a breakdown when her beloved brother dies.

Chaim Potok, who wrote this piece, was masterful. He captured a time and place brilliantly, writing about Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn of the early 1950s, which is not the Brooklyn of today -- not the hipster's Williamsburg, nor the Hasidim's Brooklyn.

The production captures some of this poignant tale. But Potok was such a lovely writer, one can't help but wonder how terrific this could have been.

Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus
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