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BWW Interviews: His Name Is Ari Brand

The first time a stage adaptation of a Chaim Potok novel played in New York, it lasted less than a week: The off-Broadway musical The Chosen ran for six performances in January 1988. The second time around, the results have been far more auspicious. My Name Is Asher Lev, a nonmusical play based on Potok's autobiographical novel, opened off-Broadway in November and was originally scheduled to close this week but has been extended through August.

Asher Lev features Ari Brand in the title role, which he also played last spring at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. (director Gordon Edelstein and costar Mark Nelson were also part of the Long Wharf production). Last seen in NYC in A.R. Gurney's Black Tie at Primary Stages, Brand was the understudy for Eugene Jerome in the Broadway revival of Neil Simon's Broadway Bound that closed in previews in 2009. He's also performed Shakespeare in the park--both the Public Theater's and New York Classical Theatre--and in the Midtown International Theatre Festival, as well as at regional theaters and on the TV series White Collar.

In My Name Is Asher Lev, Brand both tells and enacts the story of a young Jewish painter whose artistic talents clash with the Hasidic community in which he's raised. He plays Asher from age 6 into adulthood, with Nelson and Ilana Levine portraying Asher's parents and all other characters. The play was written by Aaron Posner, who prior to Potok's death had collaborated with the novelist on a nonmusical stage adaptation of The Chosen (both it and Asher Lev world-premiered at the Arden Theatre of Philadelphia, cofounded by Posner). Brand, who was born and raised in New York City, spoke with BWW at the Westside Theatre before a recent Wednesday matinee.

As both narrator and actor, you do a lot of speaking in the play. Have you had any problems with laryngitis...or forgetting your lines?
No, surprisingly I haven't. There's the occasional "what am I saying right now?" That's usually by the end of the week on a two-show day, but it rarely happens. In this play I have a completely linear track: I narrate and I then go into the scenes, and one leads into the next. The other characters have a much more difficult task of having to jump in in medias res--in the middle of things--without that through line.

How much did you know of the novel before you were cast as Asher Lev?
I had probably heard the name, but it wasn't really part of my consciousness. I'd heard of The Chosen, but I never read it. I actually auditioned for this play two times before the one we did at Long Wharf, so by the third production I was auditioning for, I had a pretty good grasp of the story. And then once I got cast, I finally read the book.

Is it true you and others from the cast and production team went out to Hasidic Brooklyn where the story's set?
There's a man, Beryl Epstein, who gives guided tours of the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights. He's a rabbi, I believe. We went to the synagogue, the matzo factory, the Torah scribe... It was a really fascinating tour, and it enriched the world of the play for us.

What specifically did you pick up from that tour that's informed your performance?
For one thing, it helped with speech patterns--the dialect of the Brooklyn Hasidic community. Which is different from just your typical Brooklyn Jewish, which I'm very familiar with thanks to my grandmother! We were able to ask questions about families, about expectations of sons by their fathers, about the relationship between parents in a family--how much mothers and fathers can touch each other, do they touch in front of the children, does the woman always wear her wig inside the house as well as in public. We were able to ask all these questions that were important to us to get right in order to tell the story accurately and respectfully.

You lost your father when you were very young. Is there a painful resonance to you in doing this play that's centered on a father-son relationship, and also has the tragic early death of Asher's beloved uncle in it?
There are similarities to a home where there's a death in the family that I'm able to connect to in some ways. I was 6 years old, my brother was 10, when my father died. I don't remember specifics about that time, but I remember a general feeling of a darkness that can come into the house for a period of time. And there's that darkness in the play, where Asher is sort of directionless, aimless, he stops drawing; that's the crux of and manifestation of that depression he goes into for about three years. And it's the awakening out of that depression that spurs him to understand his gift and how important it is to him.
For me, my father's story is relevant because his father was a very strict, authoritarian Orthodox Jewish man who wanted the same in his children, and my father did not want to adhere to the rules of Orthodox Judaism. He is in a lot of ways much like Chaim Potok, who felt too restricted and needed a different form of Judaism. He still wanted to have his faith, but he couldn't do it in the same way [as his parents]. So in the same way, my father's relationship with his father is the equivalent--more so than my relationship with my father. I remember my father as a very fun-loving, open, tolerant, emotionally available person, whereas Aryeh Lev is pretty much none of those things.

Between Long Wharf and off-Broadway, you've spent the better part of a year as Asher. Has your performance changed at all over time?
The transition from New Haven to New York certainly, because the theaters are so different. I do so much direct address in this play. In Long Wharf, it was a thrust stage: Everybody was on the ground floor and then going up around me, so I was speaking out to the sides and out to the top. I could also see them better. The lighting was so different, I could actually see everybody's reaction. In this theater, I see much less of the audience, and they're all out right directly in front of me. That changes the way that I speak to them.
The performances themselves, anybody who does a long run of a show--we've done something like 160 performances--can tell you it's bound to change, and sort of ebb and flow in tons of different qualities: how much you feel connected to certain scenes, how you think about your relationship to your fellow actors...

What feedback have you heard from audience members that's particularly memorable?
We've met a bunch of different people, not only in talkbacks but out in the lobby after we come out, who tell us stories about the way that they connect to this story. The vast amount of people of different backgrounds who connect to the story has been a little surprising to us. Black men growing up gay in the South, for one example. A Mormon woman who felt extremely connected to the struggle between faith and art. There was a Hasidic woman who came in secrecy, because she's a performer and an actress and a dancer and her husband doesn't know. Really, when it comes down to it, it's just a story about fathers and sons, and the choices we have to make in order to be who we know deep down we are. I'm realizing over the course of this run that almost anybody I can think of can relate to this story. I didn't think so at first, but now when I'm in the middle of the scene, a friend of mine pops into my head who can relate to the story. It's an incredibly universal story. And the specificity of the community and the location actually makes it that much more universal. Much like Joyce's Dublin or Faulkner's South--when you're in this very specific place, you can see the universality of it because you understand the community and the story so well.

Have you met anyone in Chaim Potok's family?
Naama Potok, his daughter, is the understudy for my mom. She's gone on a few times. It's amazing being with her on stage, 'cause she's basically playing her grandmother. I'm sitting there watching her, and it's like, "This is your story to tell." Her mother, Adena, who is Chaim's widow, has come a couple of times--she came on opening night, of course. Her son, Akiva, Naama's brother, has come as well.

In college why did you double-major in psychology rather than just do a drama major?
Because my brother did [laughs]. I kinda followed my brother in whatever he did growing up, although I tweaked it a little bit to carve out my own identity: He was a huge Rangers fan, I became a Knicks fan. I followed him to Wesleyan, even though we weren't there at the same time--the year after he graduated, I started. He was a psychology I got to college and I took one psych class and I said, "I understand this, I want to know more about this." When you're at a liberal arts school and it's not a conservatory, you have the ability to not focus on only one thing. I didn't want to just take theater classes at this school which offers so much, so I took a bunch of psychology classes as well. I was probably a much better theater student than I was a psychology student, but I was still fascinated by it. Especially social psychology. And that's the thing that sort of relates the most to acting.

Did psychology interest you on its own or because of how it could contribute to your acting?
Just for the psychology. I remember thinking, "Everybody in the world needs to learn about psychology; everybody should know about the human brain and how it works, and emotions and behavior." And I remember thinking that if everybody in the world took social psychology, there would be so much less conflict, so much less war and evil in the world, because people would understand that we're all human and deep down we all want very similar things. This is, you know, controlling for power and economics and inequality... But social psychology is an incredibly important thing for everybody to study.

Has it helped you as an actor?
Oh, absolutely. It made me much more knowledgeable about behavior, and what is acting if not imitating behavior? Understanding the motivations for doing one thing or another thing. If you understand empirically how groups of people have behaved, it's only going to make sense that you're going to have a deeper understanding of the choices you have to make in order to make a character real and naturalistic.

Is your girlfriend, Caitlin, in showbiz?
She's not. She's a sociology Ph.D. candidate at NYU. We met at Wesleyan our senior year. We grew up about six blocks away from each other in the city, and we didn't meet until our last year of college. We had a lot of mutual friends--it was like, How have we missed each other so many times?

Were you a classmate of Lena Dunham's at St. Ann's School in Brooklyn?
I was. She's a friend of mine. She's two years younger than me, and she was one [of my only], if not my only friend of that year. She was a very charismatic presence in high school. Not anything over-the-top, just very sweet and nice and confident. She was an incredibly genuine person--and super-talented. We acted in plays together. I believe she was in She Loves Me, which we did my junior year. The last time I saw her was probably two or three years ago, but we used to hang out.

You've played Asher Lev, Eugene Jerome, Peter van Daan (inThe Diary of Anne Frank at Connecticut's Westport Country Playhouse). Any concerns about getting pigeonholed in "yearning young Jewish man" roles?
I'm not really sure. I don't really know how that works enough to say that I wouldn't want to do that." They are very distinct characters. I also have been in an A.R. Gurney play, playing a WASP, and I did Mary Zimmerman's Arabian Nights, playing an Iraqi man. But I am a Jewish guy, I fit the type. Who knows what'll happen in the future? I'm perfectly happy with where I am right now. I'd love to play any part that's engaging and fulfilling.

Asher Lev and Eugene Jerome both grew up Jewish in Brooklyn in the 1940s and have artistic ambitions their parents don't fully understand. Do you feel like you're finally getting to play Eugene with this play?
That's interesting [laughs]. It's such a different tone. Yes, the characters are somewhat similar, but I understood Eugene much more than I understood Asher when I was first starting out. The Hasidic community is incredibly isolated and sort of stuck-in-time. Eugene is also trying to get out of his house and branch out into the world, but in a much more mainstream way. Eugene wants to be a famous comedy writer; Asher wants to be in the fine-art world, but the fame is not what drives him--it's just the desire to be able to paint, to be allowed to paint, to express himself. Yes, he wants to share it with the world, but he doesn't want to fit in. Eugene wanted to fit in.
Peter van Daan...I guess internally he's a lot more like Asher in that Peter was a troubled, nervous, shy, sensitive boy. I think Asher is all those things as well--troubled by his parents, wanting to express himself but not really knowing how. He [Peter] finds it in Anne.

You're also a musician. Tell us about that part of your life.
My band is called the New Facility. We're an experimental indie surf rock band. There's only three of us, but we play sounds that sound like there's a lot more. We don't have that much time to rehearse, because the other two guys have day jobs and I work at night. So it's on a bit of a hiatus, but we did have a show [in mid-February] at Pianos. My guitarist/composer-lyricist was a counselor of mine at the summer camp I went to when I was 11, 12, 13, 14. He was the first guy I played collaborative music with. I played keyboards and he played bass when we did the music for Tommy. He arranged everything for a bunch of camper musicians, and we were a rock band that summer, feeling like the coolest kids in camp because we were playing the Who. He was one of my idols growing up. Then, a couple of years after I graduated from college, he said, "Hey, I'm in the city. Do you want to get together and play some music?" And it evolved after that to include a drummer and to write our own original songs. How I describe it is maybe a misnomer, but I like to think of it like that. Something about "surf rock" rings true to me about the way we play and the sounds that come out. It's evocative of a beach and wave.

Have you recorded?
We have a website where you can download songs.

Photos of Ari, from top: as Asher Lev, with Mark Nelson in background; in his headshot; as Peter, with Molly Ephraim as Anne in 2010's The Diary of Anne Frank; in My Name Is Asher Lev, with Nelson as his mentor Jacob; in Black Tie with Gregg Edelman (left) and Carolyn McCormick.

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