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‘Indecent’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)
By April Stamm
There is something so intimate, so quietly beautiful and heart-wrenchingly painful about Paula Vogel’s Indecent, now available on BroadwayHD. Even on your television or laptop, in your living room or curled up in bed, you can feel the passion from the single violin that opens the piece all the way through the heartbreaking and inspiring true history. Sitting in the audience for this production had to have been an overwhelming experience, but watching it at home also stirs the emotions.
Vogel, known for strong works exploring often controversial subjects, frequently combines realistic and complex characters and less realistic theatrical devices like non-chronological sequencing, puppetry and chorus work in her plays. Probably best known for her play, How I Learned to Drive, Vogel continues to create prolific work. Winner of multiple Obie awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony nominations, 15 of Vogel’s plays have been produced, including Indecent.
First produced in 2015 at the Yale Repertory Theater, Indecent had an Off-Broadway run at The Vineyard Theater in 2016 and opened on Broadway at the Cort Theater in 2017. It tells the true story of Polish-Jewish playwright Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance through its inception, long run in Yiddish throughout Europe and the States, and its English translation (and whitewashing) toward its Broadway premiere in 1923, for which the cast was arrested for obscenity.
We also see what happens to the play that Asch seemingly puts aside after its fateful Broadway premiere and what it meant to untold numbers of people. Through the path of the production of this important work, Vogel gives us a keyhole look into the first half the 20th century and the state of anti-semitism, fear and war. It also, poignantly, lets us peer into the complexity of the human condition, our biases and our strengths.
A cast of seven actors plays all of the roles in Indecent as they tell the tale of Asch’s journey as well as the plot of God of Vengeance, the story of a Jewish brothel owner, his quest to become respectable by commissioning a Torah scroll and marrying his daughter to a Yeshiva student, all while a relationship blossoms between his daughter and one of the prostitutes in the brothel. The play caused a sensation on both sides of the fence in the Jewish community. Some argued its telling of complex relationships painted Jews more truly and humanly than playwrights had done before. Some worried that by showing moralistically inappropriate situations for the time and characters with flaws that it would feed anti-semitism.
Vogel’s treatment of this story is at once haunting and grounded. The sketch-like and straightforward staging, use of music and dance as well as realistic characters both draws you in and also allows you to step back from the characters and look at the story as a nuanced portrait of the human condition. The small cast, including Katrina Lenk (The Band’s Visit) and Max Gordon Moore (Saint Joan, The Nap), are closely woven and create a compelling ensemble.
Issues of hate and love, acceptance and ignorance couldn’t be more topical. In Indecent, Vogel reveals layers of all of those emotions and societal implications in a gripping portrayal of the human condition.
Available for streaming on BroadwayHD.
Like this? Consider these other shows inspired by real-life stories:
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, inspired by the life of Billie Holiday.
Red, inspired by the life of American painter Mark Rothko.
Indecent flashback: Read our original review of the Broadway production.
April Stamm is a theater, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Broadway Blog and EDGE Media Network and is a Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center. Follow her on Instagram at @aprilstamm.