The first time a stage adaptation of a Chaim Potok novel played in New York, it lasted less than a week: The off-Broadway musical The Chosen ran for six performances in January 1988. The second time around, the results have been far more auspicious. My Name Is Asher Lev, a nonmusical play based on Potok's autobiographical novel, opened off-Broadway in November and was originally scheduled to close this week but has been extended through August.
Asher Lev features Ari Brand in the title role, which he also played last spring at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. (director Gordon Edelstein and costar Mark Nelson were also part of the Long Wharf production). Last seen in NYC in A.R. Gurney's Black Tie at Primary Stages, Brand was the understudy for Eugene Jerome in the Broadway revival of Neil Simon's Broadway Bound that closed in previews in 2009. He's also performed Shakespeare in the park--both the Public Theater's and New York Classical Theatre--and in the Midtown International Theatre Festival, as well as at regional theaters and on the TV series White Collar.
In My Name Is Asher Lev, Brand both tells and enacts the story of a young Jewish painter whose artistic talents clash with the Hasidic community in which he's raised. He plays Asher from age 6 into adulthood, with Nelson and Ilana Levine portraying Asher's parents and all other characters. The play was written by Aaron Posner, who prior to Potok's death had collaborated with the novelist on a nonmusical stage adaptation of The Chosen (both it and Asher Lev world-premiered at the Arden Theatre of Philadelphia, cofounded by Posner). Brand, who was born and raised in New York City, spoke with BWW at the Westside Theatre before a recent Wednesday matinee.
As both narrator and actor, you do a lot of speaking in the play. Have you had any problems with laryngitis...or forgetting your lines?
No, surprisingly I haven't. There's the occasional "what am I saying right now?" That's usually by the end of the week on a two-show day, but it rarely happens. In this play I have a completely linear track: I narrate and I then go into the scenes, and one leads into the next. The other characters have a much more difficult task of having to jump in in medias res--in the middle of things--without that through line.
How much did you know of the novel before you were cast as Asher Lev?
I had probably heard the name, but it wasn't really part of my consciousness. I'd heard of The Chosen, but I never read it. I actually auditioned for this play two times before the one we did at Long Wharf, so by the third production I was auditioning for, I had a pretty good grasp of the story. And then once I got cast, I finally read the book.
Is it true you and others from the cast and production team went out to Hasidic Brooklyn where the story's set?
There's a man, Beryl Epstein, who gives guided tours of the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights. He's a rabbi, I believe. We went to the synagogue, the matzo factory, the Torah scribe... It was a really fascinating tour, and it enriched the world of the play for us.
What specifically did you pick up from that tour that's informed your performance?
For one thing, it helped with speech patterns--the dialect of the Brooklyn Hasidic community. Which is different from just your typical Brooklyn Jewish, which I'm very familiar with thanks to my grandmother! We were able to ask questions about families, about expectations of sons by their fathers, about the relationship between parents in a family--how much mothers and fathers can touch each other, do they touch in front of the children, does the woman always wear her wig inside the house as well as in public. We were able to ask all these questions that were important to us to get right in order to tell the story accurately and respectfully.
You lost your father when you were very young. Is there a painful resonance to you in doing this play that's centered on a father-son relationship, and also has the tragic early death of Asher's beloved uncle in it?
There are similarities to a home where there's a death in the family that I'm able to connect to in some ways. I was 6 years old, my brother was 10, when my father died. I don't remember specifics about that time, but I remember a general feeling of a darkness that can come into the house for a period of time. And there's that darkness in the play, where Asher is sort of directionless, aimless, he stops drawing; that's the crux of and manifestation of that depression he goes into for about three years. And it's the awakening out of that depression that spurs him to understand his gift and how important it is to him.
For me, my father's story is relevant because his father was a very strict, authoritarian Orthodox Jewish man who wanted the same in his children, and my father did not want to adhere to the rules of Orthodox Judaism. He is in a lot of ways much like Chaim Potok, who felt too restricted and needed a different form of Judaism. He still wanted to have his faith, but he couldn't do it in the same way [as his parents]. So in the same way, my father's relationship with his father is the equivalent--more so than my relationship with my father. I remember my father as a very fun-loving, open, tolerant, emotionally available person, whereas Aryeh Lev is pretty much none of those things.