PAGE TO STAGE? In this case, you might as well just read the book.
As the late Chaim Potok might have said, "Oy!"
Not that he would have been offended by Aaron Posner's 2009 adaptation of My Name Is Asher Lev. It's respectful toward Potok's 1972 novel, and thoughtful about his über-theme concerning the spiritual competition between religion and art. But it is as dead on the stage as Potok's prose is alive on the page. And that's something, given that it's being produced at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston (through March 12) under the aegis of Scott Edmiston, Boston's best freelance director and one of the very best directors of any kind in the city.
Perhaps it's that very respectfulness that gets in the way. Most novels made into plays don't work unless they're radically restructured, or at least radically reframed, à la the Elevator Repair Service and Gatz. (Let's hope Elevator's version of The Sun Also Rises, now called The Select, will be just as groundbreaking when it comes to the Paramount Theatre next month.) When an adaptation relies almost exclusively on the dialogue of the novel, as does Asher Lev or - Adonai help us - most theatrical versions of Moby-Dick, the result is doomed almost from the first paragraph.
And when the novel was written in the first person, you can add a "gevalt" to that "oy." There is almost invariably an "And then I wrote" quality to the narrative - or in this case, an "And then I painted," since Asher Lev is an observant Jew who turns his attention to the "goyish" art world, breaking with his father in the process. Then, when he gets dad back into the tent, Asher decides he's going to paint pictures of the Crucifixion. This has almost a comic quality to it in the theatrical version - think Woody Allen bringing home rosary beads with his Wonder Bread in Hannah and Her Sisters. Comedy, though, isn't what Potok was about, even though there's a slyness in his prose that Posner doesn't capture at all.
The Crucifixion, to Potok, symbolizes the artist's quest to follow his instincts no matter how transgressive that pursuit might be to family or to society. Here it just feels like The Jazz Singer. Minus the jazz. Or Portnoy's Complaint. Without the onanism.
It doesn't help that we don't see the Crucifixion paintings - or any other art, for that matter. The bare-bones staging seems designed to leave things to our imagination, unlike an opened-up cinematic version of a novel. Why, then, not just read the book?
Perhaps because the actors can animate the material in their unique way? Alas, only Joel Colodner, as both Asher's father and his art teacher, brings his characters to life, with a self-righteous rage and betrayed sorrow that always seem like the real thing. Anne Gottlieb, normally a superb actress who has made beautiful music with Edmiston in the past, can't seem to get past the clichés of a depressive mother.
Jason Schuchman also has worked well with Edmiston, in the Lyric's 2001 production of Lobby Hero. This play has him spend much of his time as a boy between the ages of 6 and 13. Good luck with that. Most adult actors in such an extremity end up sounding like Forrest Gump - or in this case, the Jewish equivalent, Jerry Lewis. (Although he looks more like Ben Stiller.) At any rate, Schuchman is successful only at acting his age.
Still, the perplexing question is, what drew Edmiston to the play? He has such a glowing track record at Boston theaters with everything from The History Boys to Nixon in China, you would have thought he'd find some juice in a work that remains, at best, half-baked.