While Broadway is reacquainting audiences with Shuffle Along, Off-Broadway is opening our eyes to another landmark Broadway show from the 1920s – this one an all-Jewish, lesbian-themed drama that led to a criminal prosecution. Indecent is both a fascinating history lesson written by Pulitzer-winning Paul Vogel, and a cleverly staged entertainment directed by Rebecca Taichman.
Using seven actors portraying more than three dozen characters, and three musicians who very nearly turn a straight play into a rousing musical, Indecent, which has opened at the Vineyard theater, tells the backstage story of Sholem Asch’s play The God of Vengeance. It is a sweeping tale, which travels over two continents, several languages, and some 50 years.
We first see Asch as a young man in Warsaw in 1906, watching while his wife Madje finishes reading the Yiddish play he has just finished writing. She is astounded. “This play will be done all over the world, Moscow, Berlin, Paris.” And so it was.
While we see shrewdly selected snippets from The God of Vengeance, with supertitles projected in English and Yiddish, we only learn enough to get the gist: The innocent daughter of a pious brothel owner (!) falls in love with one of his prostitutes. They kiss in a scene that everybody refers to as “the rain scene.” The father is outraged, and, in the final scene, brings the Torah crashing down on his daughter’s head.
“Garbage,” a participant in a first reading reacts. “This is a play written by a Jew who hates Jews.”
But many audiences do not see it that way. After years of successful productions throughout Europe, from St. Petersburg, Russia to Rome, Asch immigrates to the United States in 1920, and his play follows, first in New York’s burgeoning Yiddish theater, then in an English translation in Greenwich Village at the Provincetown Playhouse and finally on Broadway in 1922. Though the Broadway production is trimmed by its producers to make it more palatable for the uptown crowd, it is the only one in which the police arrest the cast and producer on charges of obscenity. (Among the play’s defenders is Eugene O’Neill.)
Vogel is unafraid to complicate the story of The God of Vengeance, both by presenting Asch sometimes unsympathetically and by crowding the play with incident. It is not easy to keep track of all the characters who fly by. Richard Topol is the only actor to portray just one character, Lemml, who is the stage manager, in effect our narrator, and something a little more than that. A tailor from a two-bit shtetl who had never seen a play before, Lemml is invited by a distant cousin to attend a reading of The God of Vengeance, and becomes its devotee for the rest of his life – including in the Lodz Ghetto in 1943 (“Last week we presented Act I, and God willing, next week we will still be here to perform Act III.”)
Although Indecent is the result of extensive research – Taichman did her masters thesis at the Yale School of Drama on the controversy surrounding The God of Vengeance – it seems unlikely that Lemml is an actual historical figure. However, he is a moving stand-in for all the schlemiels out there whose life has been changed because of art.
And Indecent helps us see the power and beauty of art not just by its subject but by its example. The three musicians, including the composers Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, do a glorious job interspersing klezmer-inflected songs and traditional melodies into the proceedings, musical numbers that are smartly choreographed in the relatively small stage of the Vineyard Theater by David Dorfman; at one point, violin-playing Gutkin hugs clarinet-playing Mike Cohen, while they continue to play their instruments.
The simple, nearly invisible set designed by Riccardo Hernandez (who just won the Henry Hewes Design? Award for The Invisible Hand) makes us feel at all times that we are at a theater; the actors are members of a troupe, risen from the ashes of memory (which is represented by a simple bit of stagecraft that I won’t spoil, which I found wondrous and haunting.) Even Tal Yarden’s projection design – which is often just practical (projected title cards tell us where we are and when, and tell us what language the characters are (supposed to be) speaking) — manages at times to transport us to a community lost to time and tragedy.
Indecent is on stage at the Vineyard Theatre (108 East 15th Street, New York, N.Y. 10003, between Union Square East and Irving Place) through June 12, 2016
Tickets and details
Indecent . script by Paula Vogel, music composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Co-created by Vogel and Taichman. Choreographed by David Dorfman. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez, projection design by Tal Yarden, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, sound design by Matt Hubbs, Featuring Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Richard Topol, Adina Verson. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.