There are many reasons to find deep satisfaction in the arrival on Broadway of the play Indecent, a fascinating tale wondrously staged about a century-old Jewish drama that featured a scandalizing kiss between two women, whose Broadway cast was prosecuted for obscenity.
It marks the long-delayed Broadway debut of Paula Vogel, who at 65 is one of the theatre community’s most admired playwrights and playwriting teachers — a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for How I Learned to Drive, in 1998), who mentored a generation of accomplished dramatists, four of whom themselves became Pulitzer winners: Ayad Akhtar, Nilo Cruz, Quiara Alegría Hudes, and Lynn Nottage (who is making her own long-delayed Broadway debut this season, with Sweat — which just won Nottage her second Pulitzer Prize.)
Indecent is also something of a homecoming and even vindication for God of Vengeance, a Yiddish play written in 1906 by Sholem Asch, which appeared in English translation on Broadway in 1923, after acclaimed productions throughout Europe. It was not acclaimed on Broadway.
Indecent is further proof that a play can explore a range of frighteningly relevant issues – threats to the arts and an entire culture, anti-immigrant bigotry, homophobia, even genocide – and do so in a production that is not only enlightening, and moving, but entertaining. Under the direction of Rebecca Taichman (who collaborated with Vogel in the creation of the show), just three musicians help turn Indecent into what often feels like a rousing musical, while seven actors portray some three dozen characters in a story that – as I observed when it ran Off-Broadway last year — sweeps through two continents, several languages, and some 50 years. Transferring the production intact to the larger Broadway stage of the Cort Theater enhances its epic reach, but manages to keep its feel of spontaneity and simplicity.
We first see the cast lined up in the back of the bare stage, dressed shabbily. Suddenly, ashes fall out of their sleeves.
This is the acting troupe – both the ones who guide us through the evening, and the ones who perform Asch’s play. They are coming back to us from the dust of history. The stage manager Lemml (Richard Topol) does the introductions – the man and the woman “who play all of the fathers and mothers”; the man and the woman “who are in their prime”; “and our ingénues!” Each of the six “actors” (who are portrayed by first-rate performers) plays up to eight characters.
We begin with Asch (Max Gordon Moore) at age 23 in 1906 in his bedroom in Warsaw, watching while his wife Madje (Adina Verson) 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.”
In the next scene, Lemml, as a tailor from a small shtetl who’d never seen a play before, is invited by a cousin to attend the first reading before a group of prominent Yiddish literary men, of The God of Vengeance, which we learn is a drama about an innocent daughter of a pious brothel owner who falls in love with one of his prostitutes.
Some of the men react in outrage (“You are representing our people as prostitutes and pimps!/”You are pouring petrol on the flames of anti-Semitism”) But Lemml is so enchanted by the play that, as he tells us several times in the scenes that follow, it changes his life forever.
Last December, an enterprising theater company called New Yiddish Rep put on a Yiddish-language production of The God of Vengeance, at La Mama, the version of the play that was part of the thriving Yiddish Theater scene of New York in the early 1900s. As intriguing as this was, it demonstrated to me just how skillfully Vogel and Taichman present enough snippets of the original play that we get the gist, and the flavor, without the creak and the tedium of Asch’s script.
This highlights approach is more or less applied to the backstage scenes as well. The court case that springs from the Broadway production is presented with some engaging details, but Indecent doesn’t linger on it; it is not the only focus. Indeed, the characters and incidents that fly by almost made me dizzy Off-Broadway. I found it all easier to follow at the Cort; I cannot say whether this was because this was my second viewing, or because the scenes have sharpened; I suspect it’s both.
Although God of Vengeance was unmitigated (melo)drama, Indecent is threaded with backstage comedy. When they decide to bring God of Vengeance to Broadway, one of the actresses is unable to master the English translation enough to satisfy the director, so he lets her go, and hires Virginia (Verson) to portray Rifkele (the brothel owner’s virtuous daughter). Virginia is an American woman who has never acted before. That’s not the only way she differs from the rest of the troupe. She is a graduate of Smith College – and a Christian.
“What will shock your parents the most,” Virginia is asked by Dorothee, who plays Manke the prostitute (stand-out Katrina Lenke.) “That you are playing in a Jewish company? That you are playing a Jewish girl? Or that you are playing a girl in love with a prostitute?”
“I hope all of it!” Virginia exclaims.
Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, two of the three musicians, have composed an extensive original score of klezmer-inflected songs and incidental music, heavy on the accordion and ukelele, but they also work in some dozen melodies by other composers, including some Yiddish favorites and Richard Rodgers. Much of the music is fun, allowing the cast to let loose to David Dorfman’s choreography. At one point, violin-playing Gutkin hugs the third musician, clarinet-playing Matt Darriau,and they continue to play their instruments while in each other’s arms.
But one of the songs is a lullaby written by Ilse Klein, a nurse at the Children’s Hospital at Theresienstadt, which she reportedly sung as she volunteered to accompany the children when they were transported to Auschwitz.
It accompanies a scene after the one in which members of the acting troupe put on God of Vengeance in the Lodz Ghetto in 1943. “Last week we presented Act I,” Lemml says in the attic turned theater, “and God willing, next week we will still be here to perform Act III.”
Such scenes don’t just pay tribute to a community lost to time and tragedy. Indecent helps us see the power and beauty of art, not just by its subject but by its example.
Indecent is on stage at the Cort Theater (138 W 48th St, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, New York, NY 10036)
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, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, sound design by Matt Hubbs, projection design by Tal Yarden. Musicians: Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva.Featuring Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Richard Topol, Adina Verson. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell