When a character introduces himself by saying he is "notorious and legendary," you might expect to see a more intimidating figure than the title character of My Name Is Asher Lev, as soulfully embodied in Mad Cow's impressive production by baby-faced actor Michael Frishman. With his white tallit fringes dangling and black yarmulke pinned to his head, he seems more nebbishy than notorious. But beware the black object this Brooklyn bomber clutches to his chest – it isn't a prayer book, but an art portfolio, and its contents are capable of blowing an entire family apart.
Unlike Asher, who is an orthodox member of the cultish Hasidic sect, I'm about as un-frum a Jew as you'll find (I observed the recent Yom Kippur fast by solemnly eating shellfish on a cruise ship), but you don't have to know the Talmud from a telephone book to identify with the story's essential elements: an iconoclastic painter pitted against his strictly conservative father (Brian Brightman), with his supportive but frightened mother (Sara Oliva) straining to keep the peace between them.
Aaron Posner's script (adapted from Chaim Potok's acclaimed 1972 novel) doesn't present the age-old progress-versus-tradition paradox in binary terms. Frishman's Asher is precocious and talented, but also frustratingly naive and selfish in his single-minded pursuit of aesthetic achievement. Likewise, the parents aren't depicted as soulless simpletons just because they don't embrace his art; Brightman's eyes burn with passion for his religious duty, and Oliva's selfless devotion to her son is as heart-wrenching as a Pietà, only amplified by Jewish mother's guilt.
Director Mark Edward Smith smartly stages the show in Mad Cow's small Zehngebot-Stonerock black box on a narrow strip of stage separating two halves of audience, making the kitchen table dramatics powerfully intimate; you'll want to fold your legs in the front row, lest you trip the cast. With Frishman front and center for the entire intermission-free 90-minute show, Smith employs a variety of imaginative devices that allow Asher to both narrate his tale and exist inside it, smoothly stepping in and out of his invisible younger self while directly addressing the audience. Rob Wolin's minimal scenery is morphed by Eric Haugen's cool lighting, which subtly transforms with each time shift. Another wise choice was to represent all of Asher's artwork with blank pieces of paper, allowing the viewer to imagine richer images than any prop could provide.
With finely focused performances (Brightman's fleeting appearance as Lev's irascible mentor is especially sharp) and meticulously crafted pacing, My Name Is Asher Lev is that rare production that is equally affecting on both an emotional and intellectual level. Asher's spiritual examination of whether all artists must necessarily exile themselves from their culture, and whether creating great art is justification for causing great pain, should spark spirited discussions. But it's the rawness of the ruined human relationships, rather than the philosophical debates, that ultimately give this show its impact.