Ari Brand plays the title character in Aaron Posner's new adaptation of the classic Chaim Potok novel My Name is Asher Lev, currently playing at Westside Theatre. The play, set in post-war Brooklyn, tells the story of a Jewish prodigy who is forced to go against the will of family, community, and tradition in order to fulfill his dreams.
The play keeps close to Potok's original tale while condensing the story (two actors play all of the men and women in Asher's life). Asher's character provides a frame by breaking the fourth wall, delivering monologues from the novel directly to the audience.
Brand has been with the production since it began at the Long Wharf Theatre in May 2012. TheaterMania spoke to him about his relationship with the character he plays and what he's learned throughout the run.
In the book, I think you see Asher a lot more in relation to other people. You're able to glimpse instances where you notice that Asher is a little bit of a troubled person, socially. He's more of an outcast and a quote-unquote "bad kid" in school. That's not really in the play [so] much.
I mention in the play that I did poorly in school and that there was a boy who made fun of me and little things like that. But the experience of a kid who was labeled a "bad kid" from six to thirteen, that's a really formative part of one's life and something that really determines what you're like for the rest of your life. All that came from the novel.
How much do you relate to Asher's character?
Not that much. Asher is a very troubled child. He has almost nobody supporting his vision of who he needs to be and who he is. I didn't have that kind of a childhood. I was very lucky.
I relate to him more through my father, actually, who had maybe a more similar experience with his parents — his father didn't approve of the path that he was taking — and his strained relationship with them as he grew up into a man. I tell his story a lot more than I tell my own. I sort of see myself perhaps as Asher's son telling his story.
What's important for you to convey about this character?
I think what's important for the audience to understand is that sometimes a kid grows up in the wrong body and in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their soul exists in that body and there's nothing they can do about it, and it's not something that nurture can change. If that is the case, then we have to do our best to accept that about the person, especially if it's not doing any harm. I think that's why a lot of people connect to the story, because it's not just about art. It's not about Judaism. It's about being allowed to be who you are.
What's it like playing this character from the time that he's six until he's an adult?
It's really fun to distinguish between what a six-year-old does and what a ten-year-old does and what a thirteen year old does and what a seventeen-year-old does. Maybe the audience is watching and saying "I remember when I was thirteen and I was so awkward in my body and self-conscious," or "when I was seventeen and I was learning to take ownership of my body and the world around me and my ideas and my values," or "when I was six and I had no regard for my surroundings and was just interested in my dreams." Hopefully people can relate to that and see themselves as a child when they're watching it. That's what I like to do.
What's the dynamic like with your two other actors?
Everybody is incredibly generous in terms of allowing other people to make choices and [work] around them. The fact that Mark Nelson, for example, plays polar opposites in Asher's life, sometimes it's difficult to see him as the overbearing and authoritarian father because all I want to do is give him a hug. He's one of the sweetest people I've ever known and also one of the smartest people I've ever known and worked with. I wouldn't have lasted this long in the show, I don't think, if Mark wasn't here.
What do you think of the choice to have all the other roles played by just two actors?
I think it raises some interesting thoughts while you're watching it. The same actor is representing every single father figure, which makes sense — you see the ties between them. You see how passionate Jacob Kahn is about what he does and how passionate Aryeh is about what he does and how passionate the Rebbe is about what he does. Asher comes to the realization that his father is very much like himself. He strives for his passion in a completely different context, and that's really interesting to watch.
And also, people often ask the question, "Was it a coincidence that the woman playing your mother is also the nude model?" Some people will read into that, like this oedipal thing that goes on. And that's fine, if you want to read into that, that's cool. It's probably more of an economic reason.
How do you feel like the ending of your play compares to the ending in the book?
It's pretty similar. I know in the book, after the scene in the gallery, Asher has a bit of a dialogue with his parents. His mother says, "There are limits, Asher."
But hopefully that's conveyed in the look that I get as they walk out, which is just a powerful, powerful look. My mother gives me a look that says, "Don't even try to cross this line again." I think the play ends in an incredibly resolved and unresolved way. Sometimes there are stories that you hear where you really worry about how [it is] going to end because you don't want to be disappointed, and I think that this ending leaves it in this very precarious place — very balanced.