It is astonishing that the most recent opening at the Cort Theatre, “Indecent,” marks the Broadway debut of its Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Paula Vogel. A new play based on real events, “Indecent” (co-conceived by director Rebecca Taichman) finds the writer in both familiar and exemplary form.
The potentially perturbing name of the play refers to (and the plot follows) an obscenity charge brought against playwright Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” produced on Broadway in 1923. Sixteen years earlier, Asch (Max Gordon Moore), an idealistic young poet living in Warsaw, writes (in Yiddish) his first and only play. Fulfilling his stated aim of creating art that reflects human beings in all their flawed complexity, as opposed to writing deifying Jewish propaganda, the plot of “Vengeance” revolves around a pious brothel owner (Steven Rattazzi) and the romantic attachment between his adolescent daughter (Adina Verson) and a glamorous prostitute (Katrina Lenk) who lives with the other “working women” downstairs.
Advised by members of the Jewish intelligentsia to destroy the work, Asch and his wife Madje (also Verson), instead bring the script to theater star Rudolf Schildkraut (Tom Nelis), who stages the play in Berlin and other European capitals to tremendous acclaim. The notion of conquering the new world inevitably arises, and the play eventually successfully opens in English translation at the Provincetown Playhouse.
As Broadway beckons, an ironic and initially amusing exchange occurs between the commercial producer and the company concerning what might or might not be palatable uptown to audiences from Connecticut. (One can’t help but wonder about similar discussions occurring in 2017 about readying “Indecent” for a Broadway run after its successful off-Broadway debut last season.)
The historical upshot is that the enactment of the enchantment the two women feel for each other – known throughout the play as the “rain scene” – is excised from the Broadway production of “Vengeance.” As the vocal conscience of the enterprise, Dorothee (Lenk) protests, “My Manke is no longer a woman in love … in this obscenity of a world!” The new script’s omission makes the play only about sex, an outcome that means we will never know whether the American judicial system might have judged the play differently had it been performed as originally written. In one of a series of surprising developments, we learn that the legal complaint levied against the production comes from the American Jewish community, which takes us neatly full circle back to Warsaw.
The theater troupe, now back in war torn Europe after their trial and conviction, does not lose faith in the theater and continues to perform “God Of Vengeance” as a source of meaning and survival – their audiences are asked for donations of food – while their religion and language are extirpated by Fascism.
Telling a tale that spans many decades against the backdrop of history on two continents is an ambitious assignment. Taichman uses almost every Brechtian device at her disposal (supertitles, direct address narration, musical scoring and cabaret interludes among them,) creating some beautiful stage pictures along the way. Often the projected information is bilingual – Yiddish and English, and the actors convey through dialect changes in which language they are attempting to speak, reminding us how alienating it can be to struggle to communicate. Cumulatively, the many elements of the staging affords us the scope to think as well as feel.
Vogel and Taichman provide the audience with many signposts to navigate and much to ponder, so much so that we can become preoccupied with tracking the morphing of the characters, as opposed to investing emotionally in their singular inner lives. The actors evolve into similar versions of their on- and offstage selves and it is not always easy to keep everyone straight. For example, the two women playing the lesbian lovers in “Vengeance” share a parallel romance in their personal lives. (Lenk and Verson are exceptional and moving as the women thwarted in love.) This pattern repeats itself a decade later with different players, compounding the possibility of confusion and detachment. It may be that we simply do not spend enough time with many of the characters in a consistent context to feel their essence. The unintended outcome is that “Indecent” sometimes seems negatively distant, or in the vernacular – a little “meh.”
Helping us along though, almost echoing Thornton Wilder, is an invaluable Stage Manager, Lou, (Richard Topol in a compathic and poignant performance.) His belief in the transformative power of theater never falters, long past the time when Asch has by omission virtually renounced his own work. (Asch, in a subtle and calibrated performance from Moore, questions whether any play can be palliative in the face of a pogrom.) Nelis evokes the great actor-managers of a bygone age with great aplomb and Mimi Leberdeftly punctures any self-importance surrounding her in a variety of amusing roles.
Among the intriguing questions proposed by “Indecent” is the role of puritanism in forming America, in contrast to the tolerance of unorthodoxy in cosmopolitan Europe. Vogel also interrogates the false promise of welcome and assimilation. For some immigrants to America, the proverbial “melting pot” turned out be a bitter stew of disappointment and ongoing displacement. The legacy of both these themes resonates compellingly in our shared present.
There is no need to question whether “Indecent” needs to be performed now, or whether the playwright has fashioned a sophisticated compression of penetrating themes, and the director a skilled way of exploring them. As a rising global populist movement promulgates both homo- and xenophobia, Vogel’s “Indecent” cautions us, as Asch did in “God of Vengeance,” of the need to assert our common humanity. New York audiences may not have been ready for “God of Vengeance” in the early years of the last century, but I predict they will fully embrace “Indecent” in the second decade of this one.
“Indecent” opened at the Cort Theatre on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.
Creative: Written by Paula Vogel; Created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman; Music by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva; Inspired by ‘The People vs. The God of Vengeance’ conceived by Rebecca Rugg and Rebecca Taichman; Music orchestrated by Aaron Halva; Musical Director: Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva; Directed by Rebecca Taichman; Choreographed by David Dorfman; Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design by Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design by Matt Hubbs; Projection Design by Tal Yarden; Hair and Wig Design by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova.
Producers: Daryl Roth, Elizabeth I. McCann, Cody Lassen, Jerry Meyer, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Elizabeth Armstrong, Julie Boardman, CoGro Partners, Nicole Eisenberg, Four Star Productions, GLS Productions, The John Gore Organization, Kathleen K. Johnson, Dana M. Lerner, Jenn Maley, Mano-Horn Productions, Marc Platt and Storyboard Entertainment; Produced in association with Yale Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse and Vineyard Theatre.
Cast: Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Richard Topol, Adina Verson.