By Samuel L. Leiter
As I looked around during the standing ovation greeting Paula Vogel’s Indecent, now on Broadway after its successful run Off-Broadway last season, a few people were struggling both to applaud and wipe their eyes. While I can understand the latter reaction, my own, both now and when I saw it last year, was confined to enthusiastic clapping.
A lot—much of it entertaining as well as informative—has been packed into Indecent’s intermissionless hour and 45 minutes. Many important themes are covered, including censorship, immigration, anti-Semitism, intrareligious disagreement, the Holocaust, homophobia, and others. Sometimes it’s hard to shake the feeling of being taught a lesson, not the best method for stirring an audience’s emotions.
Indecent was inspired by Polish writer Sholem Asch’s (1880-1957) Yiddish melodrama, God of Vengeance (Gut fun Nekome), published in 1907. It was incendiary for its time, a play about a Jewish brothel-keeper who seeks his salvation through the purity of his daughter, Rifkele; he is, however, punished by the god of vengeance (or life itself) by having Rifkele become the lesbian lover of one of his prostitutes, Manke, and then a prostitute herself. Cue the Torah throwing!
The women’s controversial love scene in the rain, replete with a groundbreaking, onstage kiss, had a profound effect on Vogel, whose program note says that she’s never read a more beautiful scene between two women, “one that accorded their love the pure desire of Romeo and Juliet on the balcony.” In Indecent the scene, around which the play keeps circling, is eventually performed with a splashy deluge.
Although denounced by Jewish leaders, God of Vengeance eventually received successful European stagings starring the renowned Austrian actor Rudolph Schildkraut, for whom Asch tailored the role. After Schildkraut immigrated to New York he acted it there without incident in German and Yiddish, the latter at the Irving Place Theatre in 1921 (details omitted from the program’s otherwise informative timeline).
An English production at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1922 led to a move to Broadway’s Apollo Theatre in 1923, where, even though it removed the lesbianism, it was eaten by the lion of censorship, with the entire cast forced to spend the night in jail. The same plague would soon threaten many other sexually provocative plays, including those of Eugene O’Neill. Interestingly, O’Neill himself (Max Gordon Moore) is a character in Indecent.
Vogel is credited with having written Indecent but also as having ”created” it in collaboration with director Rebecca Taichman, the circumstances being described in the playwright’s program note. Their play eventually premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse before moving to the Yale Rep and then Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, whose cast is intact at the Cort.
Using a fictional stage manager named Lemml (poignantly acted by Richard Topol) to string many of its incidents together, Indecent is an episodic combination of biodrama and docudrama focusing on God of Vengeance’s history and Asch’s life into the early 1950s. Some of its material seems extraneous, like the Holocaust sequence revolving around a wartime production by starving actors in a Lodz ghetto attic, material that expands the play’s concerns with anti-Semitism. Still, like an earlier cabaret scene, it’s so well done its performance more than justifies its inclusion.
Taichman’s highly imaginative staging, using dance, music, and Brechtian storytelling techniques, is superb, and the play’s panoramic narrative is absorbing. There are numerous innovative moments but having the dust pour from the actors’ sleeves at select moments (evoking the notion of “ashes to ashes”) is as memorable as theatrical images get.
Three musicians (Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva, and Matt Darriau), dressed in designer Emily Rebholz’s period costumes, wander through the action playing Gutkin and Halva’s wonderful klezmer music, much of it danced to the Hassidic-inflected choreography of David Dorfman. Tom Nelis (playing Schildkraut and others in a white, rabbinical beard) and the beautiful Katrina Lenk (noteworthy as Manke) show particularly nimble dance abilities in addition to their acting chops.
Indecent plays out on Riccardo Hernandez’s stripped-down set, sensitively lit by Christophe Akerlind, showing an upstage false proscenium, old-fashioned footlights, and other reminders of the play’s theatricalism; Tal Yarden’s surtitles provide vital information, like times, places, and translations.
Although there are occasional infusions of Yiddish, the actors use accents when speaking English, and none when speaking Yiddish; the projections also tell us which they’re speaking. To contract time, jump cuts are created by a ping and the words “a blink in time.”
The across-the-years, pageant-like structure, with seven actors playing over forty roles, seems more pronounced in a large Broadway theatre. With the actors relying on shortcuts, few characters appear more than two-dimensional. This often leads to declaiming the lines rather than living them, thereby underlining Indecent’s didactic qualities.
God of Vengeance has received a couple of recent Off-Broadway stagings that did nothing to enhance its once-vaunted reputation. Its stage life may have expired but you can get an excellent glimpse of its best features by a visit to Vogel and Taichman’s beautifully realized, if occasionally flawed, response to it.
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Through September 10
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).