by Samuel L. Leiter
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.
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.
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.
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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).