Up close and personal with the ‘Asher Lev’ star
Among the Goliaths storming the New York City boards this year – Tony winners like Douglas Hodge, Shuler Hensley and Nathan Lane as well as marquee names like Alec Baldwin and Tom Hanks have or will graced the stage this season – one David has demonstrated remarkable staying power. In an understated, heartfelt performance that has drawn raves from critics and audiences alike, Ari Brand has become the toast of the town for his leading performance in Gordon Edelstein’s My Name is Asher Lev, currently playing the Westside Theater.
It’s a nice reversal for the humble Brand, whose career logline until earlier this season was, unfortunately, defined by a performance that never took place. Cast as an understudy in Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, one of two plays (the other being Brighton Beach Memoirs) to run in rep as part of a Doc double bill, the production closed in its infancy, before anyone in his production ever even had a chance to bound to Broadway.
While other roles followed, including a memorable 59E59 gig as a jitter-filled groom in A.R. Gurney’s Black Tie, it’s his performance as the title character of Asher Lev that has proven to be the performer’s breakout. Brand demonstrates uncommon sensitivity in Aaron Posner’s adaptation of the Chaim Potok novel about the culture clash between a young artistic prodigy and his Hasidic family (his father is portrayed by Mark Nelson and his mother was originated by Jenny Powers; Ilana Levine has recently taken over the role) and community in 1950s Brooklyn. Unlike The Neil Simon Plays, the response to Asher Lev has been nearly rhapsodic. The show, which began last year in a limited engagement at the Long Wharf Theatre, has announced yet another extension, now running through September.
Which gives more audience members the chance to share Edelstein’s intimate experience. “The house lights are up in the beginning, and I can pretty much see everyone,” Brand says. “I feel connected to every single audience at every single show. It is a foreign world to almost all of our audiences. It’s essential that the audience understands my character and is engaged with the story.”
It’s a foreign world, but one with emotional connections to all walks of life. Poised and perceptive, Brand recognizes why the play seems to have such widespread appeal. “This story particularly was important for so many people of so many different backgrounds,” the actor explains. “It’s a story about growing up, coming of age and figuring out who you are, about teenagers trying to find their identities. It’s kind of amazing how many people have found the book. You expect Jewish people to, but we know there is a pastor from a black church recommending the show to the members of his choir. It speaks to gay black men in the South, to Mormon women. This is about a boy who is in deep conflict about his identity and what he knows himself to be – it’s a really universal story.”
However, Brand experienced none of his alter ego’s conflict growing up the child of two musicians in Greenwich Village. “I’ve never been in an Asher Lev situation,” the actor says. “I’ve always been privileged to have the support of a core group of people, including my family.”
In fact, if Asher Lev has any personal resonance for Brand, it’s because of how it parallels the life of his father, a concert pianist who passed away when Brand was six. “I’m much more telling my father’s story than my own. He was raised Orthodox in Jerusalem. He had a lot of conflict with his father about the restrictions that came along with being an Orthodox Jew and ended up leaving home to come to New York in the 1960s.
“Asher Lev is an only child, that’s a significant thing,” Brand adds with a laugh. “Maybe if he had had a brother who became an emissary, it might have been a little bit easier for him.”
Music was Brand’s first inspiration as well, and remains so. “I went to St. Ann’s, a progressive, arts-focused school,” he says, and acknowledges playing the guitar, drums, and bass and participating in chamber groups, classical and jazz bands. He also currently plays in a band called the New Facility. “But in college I realized that I loved being onstage and was encouraged to audition for department shows and friends’ shows, and it clicked. I realized that I loved what I was doing.” A friend’s mother helped him get an agent.
Brand is that most refreshing kind of talent, one that is both gracious and grateful. In fact, the more the actor speaks about his career to date, the more he uses the word “lucky.” He’s clearly appreciative for all of those around him (including his girlfriend, a doctoral candidate in Sociology at NYU) and for each of his opportunities, especially the current one. “It’s every actor’s dream to have your regional theater production move to New York for a commercial run.”
More information about My Name is Asher Lev can be found at http://www.asherlevtheplay.com/.
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