Although Vogel has never shied away from tough subjects, the depth of emotion she mines in Indecent is impressive. She takes subject matters like theater history, anti-semitism, homophobia and close-minded governments and imbues them with color, pathos and even humor. Indecent is also a sad memorial for the passing of the vibrant Yiddish theatre scene (whose torch is still held high by the Folksbiene theatre) which was dealt a death knell when Asch, himself, refused to let his masterpiece, God of Vengeance, be revived.
Taichman also directed this complex, timely work contributing much to the inventive staging. The two women have created a massively important work that is both lyrical and dramatic, using seven brilliant actors and three divinely picturesque musicians to bring five decades of Jewish history (theatrical, religious, social, political) to teeming life.
Indecent is, on the surface, the history of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s brave Yiddish play God of Vengeance which was—incredibly, considering its wise understanding of the Jewish demimonde—written in 1906 during the height of anti-Jewish pogroms. (Asch actually witnessed a pogrom and its ugliness tainted his life thereafter.) It is far more, though. The play is a look at the sweep of Jewish life in the twentieth century using Asch’s creation as the hook.
God of Vengeance was a huge hit in Europe, despite its extremely negative reception by the Yiddish writing elite of Asch’s native Poland and its dark subject matter which included a daring kiss between two women. That beautifully written scene caused it to be banned once it hit Broadway after a very successful run at a Yiddish theater followed by an English-language version which sold-out in Greenwich Village. Even with the “offending” lesbian kiss cut from the script, the play was closed on opening night, its entire cast arrested.
The story of a religious Jew (played with proper Yiddish theater flair by Tom Nelis as the esteemed Jewish actor, Rudolph Schildkraut) who runs a brothel was offensive enough, but when the plot involved this holier-than-thou character’s daughter having an affair with one of his prostitutes, all bets were off.
God of Vengeance, despite its sullied reputation, has lived a long life, staged most recently a few months ago at La Mama.
The play, which uses a great deal of klezmer and pop music, is cleverly constructed in the musical form of ritornello. This form involves the continual return to a theme as an organizing reference point. In this case, it is the constant repetition of the lesbian kissing scene. From its initial appearance in a reading for Yiddish language leader, I.L. Peretz and his peers in which two men enact the scene with proper awkwardness, through early rehearsals and secretive performances in ghettos during the Holocaust it is reiterated until it is shown in all its romantic, lovely splendor with the two women (a luminous Katrina Lenk and a sensuous, tender Adina Verson) dancing joyously in the rain. (Asch’s wife, a sweetly delightful Mimi Lieber, wonders how her husband could write so splendidly from a female’s perspective. She tenderly calls him “her lesbian.”)
The character, Lemml, a naïve country bumpkin from a tiny shtetl is the play’s narrator. Richard Topol (the only actor to play a single role) takes this nebbish of a character and fills him with dignity and valor. Max Gordon Moore becomes Asch, making him both touchingly flawed and human and a symbol of Jewish artists struggling against incredible odds.
All the actors are superb. Steven Rattazzi is particularly touching as an actor desperate for Asch’s help in getting out of Nazi-occupied Europe.
The three delightful musicians—Matt Darriau (brilliant on the clarinet and tin whistle), Lisa Gutkin (admirably able to play her violin in all possible positions) and long-legged Aaron Halva (good-humored while playing his accordion, ukulele and percussion)—brought the play to a level of authenticity impossible without their witty, fine playing. (The music, mostly folk and pop, was enhanced with mood music by the co-composers Ms. Gutkin and Mr. Halva.)
The dark scenery by Riccardo Hernandez is often enhanced by the chiaroscuro of Christopher Akerlind’s dramatic lighting and the scene-setting projections of Tal Yarden. Emily Rebholz’s equally dark-hued costumes, which seem to exhale symbolic dust, are perfect, keeping the characters and time periods clearly defined.
David Dorfman’s ethnic-tinged choreography is excellently evocative, too.
Indecent is extraordinary theatre with heart and head equally balanced in a nuanced, often overwhelmingly effective production.
Indecent (through August 6, 2017)
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission