By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
Near the beginning of Indecent, the one-act ensemble piece by Paula Vogel, which netted director Rebecca Taichman her first Tony Award, the character of Lemml, the Stage Manager (Richard Topol), peers into the darkness enveloping the theater audience and announces “Every night we tell the same story.” He then pauses slightly and continues, “Only somehow I can never remember how it ends.”
This play should have ended unceremoniously, having received an unexpected June 25 closing notice only two days after Taichman’s celebrated Tony Award win. Other notable shows like Lynn Notage’s Pulitzer Prize winning Sweat failed to maintain the confidence of its producers following the Tony selections and even Oslo, the Best Play selection, could only muster an extended run that has now ended. How and why the producers were persuaded by a resounding sea of naysayers is something even they don’t fully comprehend.
But no matter what miracles interceded on the play’s behalf, it will now close on August 6, giving audiences just a few more opportunities to witness this extraordinary ensemble cast.
Vogel’s memory play opens on a dimly lit stage with the cast of actors and Klezmer players sitting on chairs, their backs to a wall upon where projections of the Yiddish and English words “Indecent” are seen. Indecent begins with an inspirational invention and through it we intuit these are the performers of the dusty past who have performed in the play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch.
The history of Asch’s play – the central focus of Vogel’s work – is well documented. Asch (Max Gordon Moore), who became known as a noted Yiddish novelist and essayist, began his literary career as a poet and playwright. God of Vengeance was a work that was performed all across Europe in Yiddish to great acclaim beginning in 1907. Vogel and Taichman take time to stage an imagined first reading of Asch’s work read by leading Warsaw actors of the day, freezing on specific instants so that the essence of the work can be understood. The players are seen performing the same scene, the final climactic sequence between Yankl (Tom Nevis), the pious Jewish father who owns a brothel, his now-observant wife and former prostitute Sarah and their daughter Rifkele (Adina Verson), a 16-year-old who is attracted to Menke (Katrina Lenk), one of the prostitutes living beneath the family.
This relationship is the core of the controversial nature of the play. One must keep in mind that very few scenes of lesbian love were extant at the time. The poetic language of Yiddish allowed Asch the ability to write of the older, experienced Menke and the younger, inquisitive Rifkele with tenderness and passion. Yankl, who forbids the relationship from blooming, does so for what monetary benefit he can gain by marrying off a bride who is a “virgin.” The hypocritical nature of Yankl as a religious man promoting carnal lust in his ownership of an immoral enterprise does not stop there. The motivation for him is that he is raising money to secure an expensive new Torah scroll that he believes will bring him closer to God.
Members of the Jewish literati like Nakhman Mayzel (Steven Rattazi) feared that God of Vengeance would play into the hands of anti-Semites. For Jews to be viewed as anything less than upright in a world that had proven time and again to be distrustful of their motivations could prove disastrous. Asch was urged to burn his manuscript early on.
Also, Vogel’s intuitive script does not need to quote chapter and verse where Jewish authority forbids two women from engaging in lovemaking. There are no specific biblical passages related to women acting on their attraction to another, but many exist that expressly forbid men from doing so. And there was no Lin-Manuel Miranda to champion the cause during the 1920s (“Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside.”)
Asch’s native tongue was Yiddish and he never did maintain the mastery of other, less romantic languages like English. His work always had such imagination and substance that it attracted curious academics who translated his works regularly. Vogel suggests that American producers altered the production that opened on Broadway in 1923. First, they went with a new translation that Asch in ignorance had permitted to be used. It stripped away much of the beauty of the language and cut a key scene in which Manke and Rifkele consummate their love outdoors in the rain. The Yiddish actress who had played the role of Rifkele was also terminated due to her inability to speak English well.
Asch, living within the insular Yiddish community, had no idea how his words could be misconstrued or his work questioned by a new English translation. It essentially stripped the love away from the girls’ relationship and transformed the loving and caring Menke into an evil woman bent on revenge, especially when the scene of love – the “rain scene” that spoke of their exhuberant feelings – was cut. The actors and stage manager were arrested and hauled into court on charges of indecency.
With his limited grasp of English, Asch refuses to appear in person to be questioned and defend his work. Instead he sends a letter, which leads to a conviction for the actors. When the judge (Tom Nelis) pronounces sentence, the play is found guilty of its “corruptive attitude on the family.”
Lemmle, who has been the play’s most ardent fan, is heartbroken. He leaves America to restore it and perform it where it can be appreciated most – in Europe, the site of so many earlier triumphs. The audience knows this is a disastrous choice and Vogel takes the audience into the depths of despair as the play and history intersect.
God of Vengeance lives on in in the minds of those who perform it in Indecent. We hear its expressiveness amplified through the series of musical vignettes that accompany it during scene changes as performed by six Klezmer musicians, led by Klezmatics star Wendy Gutkin and Aaron Halva. The choreography by David Dorfman is spellbinding, simple, yet expressive.
It is easy to understand how the application of lighting by four-time Tony nominee Christopher Akerling netted him a Tony Award and why Taichman, in her Broadway debut, was also given acknowledgment from the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League with its highest award for a director of a play.
Indecent continues its Broadway run at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th Street in New York. Final tickets may be obtained online or by calling 212-239-6200.