Portrait of Asher Lev

Well, the superb Fountain Theatre and its resident genius-in-chief, Stephen Sachs, have done it again. They’ve mounted a just-about-perfect production: Chaim Potok’s classic novel My Name is Asher Lev, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner. Set in 1950s Crown Heights, the Brooklyn home of the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher Jews, the play probes the conflict

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between duty, tradition, restrictive religion, and the wider world of culture and art. By the age of six Asher Lev knew he was different from other boys. But it wasn’t a gender issue. It was art. He was obsessed with it, continually escaping into the world of his imagination, and his perceptive sensibilities, to the exclusion of almost everything else in his life. To his mother it was a puzzling preoccupation, but she supported him. His father, however, had no understanding or appreciation for art. To him, his son’s art was, at best, “narishkeit” (foolishness), if not downright blasphemy. Young Jewish boys were expected to spend their days studying Torah and not wasting their time on “goyische” (Christian) pursuits. Asher’s father, Aryeh, worked for The Rebbe, the authoritative and prophetic voice of the community, and spent almost all of his time traveling around the world to spread The Rebbe’s wisdom and to build religious schools and support religious outposts wherever he went. (Though it wasn’t specifically alluded to in the play, the primary mission of this Hasidic sect is to encourage

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non-observant Jews to return to the traditions and practices of Judaism in order to help bring on the Messianic Age.) Asher, who loves and respects his father, as well as the religion that he has been so rigorously steeped in, tries to give up his painting. He is anxious to keep his mother from being torn in two by the philosophical conflict between him and his father. Eventually, however, The Rebbe, recognizing Asher’s extraordinary talent, apprentices him to a prominent artist, a stern disciplinarian who, though Jewish, is not bound by religious precepts. “An artist reflects his life or comments on it,” he tells Asher. “I paint my feelings; I am a commentator on a personal vision.” As he guides the now 22-year-old Asher into painting traditional artistic subjects, such as crucifixes and nudes, the artist acknowledges that “everything offends someone” and advises him that “the artist is responsible to his art. Anything else is propaganda.” And so Asher goes on to paint his “masterpiece”: a portrait so raw that it shocks and alienates his parents, perhaps forever. Ironically, this incident is an actual part of author Chaim Potok’s biography, as he was a well-respected painter as well as a writer. Although the play delves into the conflict between the orthodox Jewish tradition and “the outside world”, the conflict between generations, between diverse expectations, and the ongoing struggle to discover and be true to your own individual self, are themes that are universal and, in this stellar presentation, are bound to resonate with everyone. And for that we can applaud Stephen Sachs, who directs three outstanding actors to the peak of perfection. Jason Karasev plays Asher Lev with passion, frustration, and determination. Joel Polis plays Aryeh,

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The Rebbe, the famous artist, and several other men with his usual aplomb, changing his voice, his demeanor, and his clothing so expeditiously that, if it weren’t for his beard, you would hardly recognize him from one character to the next. And Anna Khaja plays Asher’s put-upon mother, worn to a frazzle by the effort to keep the peace. My Name is Asher Lev is definitely a “must see.” This Los Angeles premiere can be seen and enjoyed at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, in Los Angeles, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through April 19th. Call 323-663-1525 for tickets. Photo: Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja, and Joel Polis Photo by Ed Krieger

A Brooding Poem in the Night

George Regout, identified in the play as The Son, killed his sister when he was 17 years old. She was 9. The play is Nocturne, Adam Rapp’s poignant drama about the effects of the accidental death of the little girl on her big brother and their parents. Regout’s 90-minute monologue begins with a description of the family and its comfortable middle-class lifestyle in a “blond ranch house” in Joliet, Illinois. The living room is predominantly furnished with a vintage grand piano, a Steinway, handed down from father to son for three generations. It’s the piano that the son uses to become a musical prodigy. But perhaps mirroring his own melancholy, the piano “doesn’t sing,” he says, “it sobs.” On the night of his sister’s death, his father, overcome with grief, sticks the muzzle of a revolver in his son’s mouth, but at the last minute he doesn’t shoot. The son, sickened by the incident and by the oily, metal taste of the gun, leaves home that night and doesn’t return for 15 years. He goes to New York and finds work in a bookstore and buries himself in the books, reading everything he can get his hands on. He continually relives the automobile accident that killed his sister, fantasizing and adding elements to the story. She had unexpectedly run into the street, into the path of his car, and the crash decapitated her. And at one point her brother imagines that she had run into the street on purpose, committing suicide in order to avoid living through a tedious and unrewarding middle-class life. He wonders whether she had a death wish. Playwright Rapp’s verbiage as Regout recounts his life, however, is poetic as well as vividly morose. The Son describes his icy mother as “Abraham Lincoln in an evening gown” and calls his father “Earl the automaton.” He describes his own “cold intestinal sorrow” and talks about how “time flattens” and how “fury smells like cold undercooked pork.” Nocturne was first produced by the American Repertory Theater at the Hasty Pudding Theater in 2000. Adam Rapp, who won the Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights for this play, is also the author of some 25 plays in addition to eight young adult novels and several screenplays for film and television, including the 2010 season of In Treatment for HBO. George Regout, born in Brussels, currently lives in Berlin and is making his North American stage debut in this production. He is known in Europe for his work at Schillertheater-Werkstatt in Berlin and for his long-standing role in the television series Verliebt in Berlin, a German version of the show Ugly Betty. Though he is fluent in four European languages in addition to English, his delivery, I find, is a bit precious. And the staging is extremely static. Director Justin Ross keeps the movement tight and Regout mostly stands still or sits on the edge of a desk, which, aside from a heavily stocked bookcase and a chair, is the only furnishing on the stage. It’s an interesting production, but a long 90 minutes. Nocturne can be seen Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 through March 9th (with an added performance on Thursday, Feb. 27th and no performance on Sunday, March 2) at The Other Space @ The Actors Company, 916A North Formosa Avenue in West Hollywood.

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Call 323-960-4443 for tickets. Photo: George Regout Photo courtesy The Actors Company

A Robbery is Planned

A modern-day Simon Legree owns two restaurants and a slew of laundromats and is making money hand over fist. He doesn’t actually abuse his employees physically—just emotionally. He underpays them, provides no benefits, and continually threatens to fire them. As played by Vincent Guastaferro, Candy is an over-the-top villain. And so his employees in the Black River Café plan to rob him. The plot is introduced by headwaiter Benny (David Fraioli) and is quickly seconded by waitress Nancy (Maria Tomas). The head bartender, Jack (Jonathan Kells Phillips) is a little harder to convince, but when Candy deducts the cost of some broken wine bottles from his pay without warning, Jack agrees to go along with the robbery. The play is On the Money by Kos Kostmayer, an award-winning novelist (Lost Religion, Fargo Burns, and Politics

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of Nowhere), poet (Hamlet Sings the National Anthem), playwright (The History of Fear), and screenwriter (I Love You to Death). Kostmayer is reprising On the Money, which had its west coast premiere and a nine-month run at The Victory Theater some 30 years ago. It is once again being presented at The Victory Theater Center, and is directed by Tom Ormeny, co-founder and artistic director of the Victory. The set, a nicely stocked bar, is the work of set and lighting designer D Martyn Bookwalter The play builds suspense and tension through the fine acting of the three conspirators, most especially Jonathan Kells Phillips, but the ending comes a bit abruptly and has less dramatic impact than it ought to. That’s a chronic problem with many otherwise engaging plays. As Benny says, “The world is full of lunatics.” On the Money can be seen at The Big Victory Theatre, 3326 West Victory Blvd. in Burbank Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 4 through March 2nd. Call 818-841-5422 for tickets.

The Body in the Chair

Elaine (Jennifer Lee Laks) has had insomnia all her life, so she habitually wanders around the house in the middle of the night. This night, she looks out her front window and SCREAMS! In rush her husband John (Martin Thompson), her best friend Blanche (Christine Joelle) who is visiting, and the German maid, Helga (Judy Nazemetz). Elaine tells them she’s seen a dead man sitting in a green wing chair in the window of an apartment across the street. But, of course, when they look, they see nothing. The window shade across the street has been pulled down. Elaine promptly goes into hysterics, a condition she maintains for most of the rest of the play. The play is Night Watch, a superb mystery set in 1970’s New York. Its author, Lucille Fletcher, saw the play produced on Broadway and later made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey. Fletcher is best known, however, for her two classic scripts: Sorry, Wrong Number, which starred Agnes Moorehead on the radio and Barbara Stanwyck in the film, and The Hitchhiker, starring Orson Welles in the radio version and Inger Stevens in the adaptation that was produced for The Twilight Zone. Night Watch, while a lesser play than the other two, is still an engaging piece of work. It has a satisfying selection of possible murderers, including a next-door neighbor (Lary Ohlson) with a totally phony accent and manner and the deli owner down the street (John McGuire) who sells unappetizing potato salad. Meanwhile, Elaine, having worked herself up into a shrieking tantrum, insists that John contact the police immediately to tell them about the dead body in the window. David Hunt Stafford plays the skeptical Police Lieutenant Walker with a broad New Yawk accent, and he is accompanied by Jonathan Medina, his gregarious sidekick. As

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is to be expected, when the “crime” is investigated, there is no body to be found. Nevertheless, Elaine continues to call Lieutenant Walker ceaselessly in the next couple of days, making demands and suggestions that finally aggravate him to the point that he won’t take her calls any more. And John and Blanche, worried that she is repeating an episode of insanity that she had undergone eight years earlier, make plans to ship her off to an asylum in Switzerland to recover. And then Elaine sees another dead body in the apartment across the street. This time it’s a woman. All the bits and pieces come together at last under the brisk direction of Bruce Gray and in the tastefully furnished apartment setting designed by Jeff G. Rack. And though there are a couple of things left dangling (e.g., who pulled down the shade in the window across the street?), all in all, Night Watch provides an entertaining evening of well-presented suspense. Night Watch is presented by Theatre 40 in the Reuben Cordoba Theatre on the campus of Beverly Hills High, 241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills, It can be seen Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm through February 24th. Call (310) 364-0535 or visit www.theatre40.org for tickets. Photo: Martin Thompson, Jennifer Lee Laks, and Christine Joelle Photo by Ed Krieger