Atlanta actor Nick Arapoglou plays so effectively against type as the title role in Theatrical Outfit's My Name is Asher Lev, it's as though he's been replaced by his own evil twin. Arapoglou normally brings irrepressible boyishness to his performances in such shows as Avenue Q at Horizon Theatre. At Theatrical Outfit, he portrays painting prodigy Asher Lev from age 6 to his early 20s. But instead of childlike enthusiasm, he seems obsessed and almost monomaniacal.
Playwright Aaron Posner adapts the popular, partially autobiographical novel by Chaim Potok, but Arapoglou's Asher conveys an intensity worthy of one of Dostoyevsky's tormented antiheroes. Arapoglou's drive brings narrative urgency to a production that would otherwise feel gloomy and encumbered by overly familiar situations.
Brian Kurlander and Lane Carlock (who played spouses in Actor's Express's Albatross in 2010) field all the supporting roles in My Name is Asher Lev. A Hasidic Jew, Asher grows up in a post-World War II Brooklyn apartment with his father Aryeh (Kurlander), a tireless, world-traveling activist for the Jewish community, and his loving mother Rivkeh (Carlock), who feels haunted by the untimely death of her brother. When he plays Asher as an elementary schooler, Arapoglou stands to the side of the stage and speaks for his younger self with a seriousness that would be unnerving in a child actor.
Young Asher's artwork takes his deeply religious parents aback. It's uncertain whether they're more offended by his drawings of nude women or the crucifixion of Jesus. Directed by Mira Hirsch, former artistic director of Jewish Theatre of the South, the play hinges on a well-worn dynamic of a creative, nonconformist child resisting the opposition of a parent bound by tradition. At its best, My Name is Asher Lev presents strong, nuanced personalities making an effort to understand one another. At one dinner-table scene, Aryeh and young Asher try to reach a détente with each other, even though their opposing dedication to aesthetics vs. morals seems like an unbridgeable gap.
Like the Lev's apartment, Lee Maples' set seems frequently shrouded in gloom, as if sunlight seldom shines through the blinds. Asher and his parents all prove to be isolated figures and there's a joyless quality to their lives. Asher even finds his art-world success to be an anti-climax. The play finds some comic relief through the character of Jacob Kahn, an earthy, blunt-speaking established artist who becomes Asher's mentor. I haven't read the original novel, but it could be that it's first-person narration resists being opened up for stage drama. And while Kurlander and Carlock effectively shift between their multiple roles, they don't stray very far from their specified archetypes.
Theatrical Outfit began 2012 with Red, a livelier play about another impassioned New York-based Jewish painter, Mark Rothko. Asher Lev shows a much more complex relationship to his spirituality than Rothko, but My Name is Asher Lev feels at least partially like a thematic prequel to Red, with both plays powerfully conveying the responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of true artists. Arapoglou's engrossing performance suggests that to play a great artist, it doesn't hurt to be one yourself.