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A Kiss is Still a Kiss: ‘Indecent’

April 22nd, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

The cast and musicians of 'Indecent.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast and musicians of ‘Indecent.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

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!

(l-r) Max Gordon Moore and Richard Topol in 'Indecent.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

(l-r) Max Gordon Moore and Richard Topol in ‘Indecent.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

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.

The cast of 'Indecent.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Indecent.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

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.

Indecent
Cort Theatre
138 W. 48th St., NYC
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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Indecent’ Moves to Broadway With Entire Cast Intact

February 9th, 2017 Comments off

indecent

Daryl Roth, Elizabeth Ireland McCann and Cody Lassen, the producers of Indecent — the newest work by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) — have announced that the entire original Off-Broadway ensemble will travel to Broadway when the production begins previews at the Cort Theatre on April 4, prior to its official opening night on April 18.

The Broadway cast of Indecent has – not unlike the theater troupe depicted in the play itself – been performing the play together for more than two years: during its development with the Sundance Theater Institute and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, followed by productions at Yale Rep, La Jolla Playhouse and the Vineyard Theatre, where Indecent had its New York City debut last summer.

A new play with music, Indecent is inspired by the true story of the controversial 1923 Broadway debut of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance about a Jewish family that lives above a brothel, hoping to gain respect by having their daughter marry into a prestigious family.

Called “superbly realized and remarkably powerful” by The New York Times and hailed as one of the best plays of the year by critics, Indecent charts the journey of an incendiary drama and the artists who risked their lives to perform it. Created by Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman (Stage Kiss), Indecent is set at a time when waves of immigrants were changing the face of America and offers a riveting look at an explosive moment in theatrical history.

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‘Indecent’: When a Kiss Killed a Broadway Show

May 17th, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

The cast of 'Indecent' at the Vineyard Theatre. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Indecent’ at the Vineyard Theatre. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

One of the things that roared loudest on Broadway during the Roaring Twenties was the lion of censorship, a raging beast that awoke to find post-World War I stages inundated with unbridled sex and profanity, resulting in the closing down of one show after the other. The first to be bitten arrived in 1923, when Polish writer Sholem Asch’s (1880-1957) controversial 1906 Yiddish play, God of Vengeance, a European sensation, ran into trouble. Austrian star Rudolph Schildkraut had done it in Yiddish at Off-Broadway’s Irving Place Theatre in 1921, then in English at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1922.

When this version moved to Broadway in 1923, it was shut down and the entire cast spent a night in jail; eventually the original conviction was overturned. Asch, meanwhile, turned to novels and never wrote another play.

The compelling history behind God of Vengeance, which later had several Off-Broadway revivals, inspired Rebecca Taichman to write an early version of Indecent as her Yale thesis. The play, a sort of biodrama about both Asch’s play and the writer himself, was rewritten by Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive), who’s credited as playwright, while she and Taichman are billed as having “created” it. Taichman, though, is responsible for the beautifully evocative staging, which uses Brechtian tropes to capture the theatrical ambience and Yiddishkeit surrounding Asch’s European and American worlds. Its showing at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre follows its world premiere at Yale Rep and follow-up at La Jolla Playhouse.

Adina Verson (l) and Katrina Lenk in 'Indecent' at the Vineyard Theatre. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Adina Verson (l) and Katrina Lenk in ‘Indecent’ at the Vineyard Theatre. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

God of Vengeance, about a pious Jew, Yekel (Tom Nelis, outstanding), who has become wealthy by operating a brothel, was considered especially notorious because it depicted a lesbian love scene between the rain-soaked brothel owner’s daughter, Rifkele (Adina Verson, very fine) and a prostitute, the beauteous Manke (Katrina Lenk, my favorite), complete with a shocking kiss, a scene Asch (Max Gordon Moore, earnest) apparently agreed to cut to keep the play running.

Vogel indicts this failure to stand up for his art via the critical response of the stage manager character, Lemml (Richard Topol, poignant), who guides us through much of the action. Indecent exploits the kiss continually, even adding a heavy downpour for a climactic reenactment.

The rain, though, adds unnecessary excess to a story theatre-like presentation otherwise content to let the audience use its imagination as the actors morph from role to role on Riccardo Hernandez’s straightforward set of a raised, wooden platform backed by a brick wall.

As in so many other such works, actors are seen sitting on chairs waiting to make their entrances. Christophe Akerlind’s sensitive lighting and Emily Rebholz’s costumes (mostly suggesting the 1930s) are exceptional visual adjuncts. Tal Yarden’s supertitles, in English and Yiddish (some of them a bit fuzzy), fill in transitional gaps. Often, to suggest quick jump cuts, we see “a blink in time” projected.

Using a cast of seven actors and three musicians, with inserts of wonderful klezmer music (composed by violinist Lisa Gutkin and accordionist Aaron Halva) and lots of Hassidic-inflected movement (choreography by David Dorfman), the play progresses chronologically, moving from God of Vengeance’s creation in Warsaw, through its European stagings (always with Yekel about to crush his daughter with a Torah), to its New York legal problems, during which Asch refused to defend himself, a decision Vogel has said she continues to hold against him.

But the plot doesn’t stop there, continuing to move forward to incorporate a troupe of yellow star-wearing actors doing the play in a Lodz ghetto attic in 1943; the Holocaust has arrived. Still, it’s not until 1952 and a nod to the House Un-American Activities Committee (Asch had been “attracted by Socialists” in 1905) that the clock stops ticking.

The cast of 'Indecent' at the Vineyard Theatre. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Indecent’ at the Vineyard Theatre. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Indecent can be deeply moving, especially at moments such as when the actors allow ashes to drop from their sleeves, a powerful framing image, reinforced at the end by an “ashes to ashes” supertitle. Still, when Indecent reaches forward to include hot-button material like the six million, it spreads its net too wide. There’s already plenty of indecency to digest, from the problems of Jewish immigration and assimilation to the dramatic depiction of same-sex love to the travails of a traveling Jewish troupe to New York’s censorship invasions.

As for the latter: the authorities hit not only God of Vengeance but What Price Glory?, Ladies of the Evening, The Captive, The Shanghai Gesture, Sex, Lulu Belle, Pleasure Man, and others. Interestingly, Eugene O’Neill (Moore) shows up at a bar (where else?) to offer moral support for Asch while explaining why he’s unable to testify. Too bad there’s no subtitle to remind us that O’Neill’s own Desire under the Elms (1924) and Strange Interlude (1928) nearly felt the censor’s ax themselves. That would have been pretty indecent, too.

Indecent
Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th Street, NYC
Through June 12

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).