Art is Asher Lev's passion, his language, his way of interacting with everything around him. He can't remember a time when he didn't paint or draw. But this need clashes with his ultra–Orthodox Jewish faith and upbringing. It's narishkeit (foolishness), time stolen from studying and serving God. And Asher's subject matter goes against his religious teachings — surely driven, he's told, by the Sitra Achra, the forces of evil.
We will come to know him well in My Name Is Asher Lev, by Aaron Posner, adapted from Chaim Potok's novel of the same title and now onstage at the Unicorn. He's a character pulled by opposing forces: religious tradition and artistic tradition. Asher (Doogin Brown) is our narrator, and he makes us, the audience, his confidant, clergy to his confessions. We see his life through vignettes, meeting him at ages 6, 10, 13 ... nearly a man, with his father, Ari (Mark Robbins), his mother, Rivkeh (Manon Halliburton), and other characters portrayed by Robbins and Halliburton.
Watching Asher and his family is like taking in the museum paintings that he studies and copies: the more we look — and we want to look — the more we see, each scene exposing another dimension to these complicated, intelligent people. Directed by Cynthia Levin, the one-act held an audience rapt for 90 minutes on the Sunday afternoon I saw it. Initial rustlings and coughs rattled the packed house at the start, but the room quieted to a stunning stillness.
"A little Picasso," his religious but laid-back Uncle Yitzchok (Robbins) calls Asher at 6, "a little Chagall." Though Yitzchok, too, is a Hasid, he buys the child's work — "an early Lev," he calls it. But Ari and the Hasidic community and rebbe don't comprehend his obsession.
Asher strives to meld his religious observance with his artistic yearnings, but the divide is difficult, tearing him between outer reconciliation and inner peace.
We feel the pain of the opposing parties, who may be more similar than their views would indicate. Empathy is wanting, and breakthroughs often appear unattainable.
Sculptor Jacob Kahn (Robbins) introduces Asher to the secular art world, one bound by its own traditions — the "religion called painting," says Jacob, who is so impressed by Asher's talent that he introduces him to the gallerist Anna (Halliburton). "You are entering the wrong world," she tells Asher. "Art is not for people who want to make the world holy."
My Name Is Asher Lev is a small show — three actors, eight roles — elegantly written, with clarity and precision. Time and place shift easily with lighting (design by Alex Perry) and a simple set (design by Gary Mosby). Few flourishes are needed to take us from a Brooklyn apartment to a shul to a gallery to a studio. Most dramatic are the backlighted windows that reflect season, time of day, tone and mood.
Good writing deserves good acting, and there's no shortage of that here. Brown moves seamlessly among Asher's different ages, and he takes hold of us and pulls us into his story. Robbins, too, commands the stage in his supporting roles of father, sculptor, uncle, rebbe. And Halliburton transforms as well into distinctive characters as gallerist, art model and, in particular, mother.
I was locked on these sympathetic and strong characters' every word, absorbing their joys, pains and disappointments as though onstage with them, sometimes even holding my breath. I wasn't alone. "That's the best thing I've ever seen," a woman said at the end of this spellbinding play. "It got me," a man nearby responded.