By Karen Isaacs
Connecticut theaters present many world premieres; some can easily be recognized as major works – such as the premiers of Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, or August Wilson’s Fences, among others (both at Yale); others may reveal themselves as deeply flawed. Then there are those that are “almost-there” – works that need some tweaking or minor work to catapult them to the next level.
Indecent written by Paula Vogel and created by Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman is in the latter group – a very good, moving play that still needs some work. The Yale production, in association with the La Jolla Playhouse runs through Saturday, Oct. 24.
For most theater-goers, the incidents which the play recounts will not be familiar. It involves the novelist/playwright Sholem Asch who wrote initially in Yiddish and his play The God of Vengeance.
This play delves deeper than just the history of the production of this work and its author. It raises an issue that every minority who is looked down upon by mainstream society faces: Should the less-than-admirable aspects of our group be revealed for those who already denigrate us?
Indecent covers the period from the play’s writing and first reading in a Warsaw literary salon in 1907 through WWII and even beyond.
At that time, in what was called the Jewish Enlightenment, many Eastern European Jews were promoting literature written in Yiddish. But many of those who promoted this also wanted positive portrayals of the Jews living in Eastern Europe.
At the first reading, God of Vengeance was controversial; the young Asch writes a play that includes a Jewish owned brothel, a love affair between the owner’s daughter and one of the prostitutes, and the “shocking” treatment of a Jewish scroll. It showed a side of Jewish life which many did not want told.
Yet the play was produced in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow and other locations throughout Europe in both Yiddish and native languages. In New York City’s lower east side, the play had various successful productions for more than 15 years.
Asch and some of the performers in the actors emigrated to the US and in 1923, the Provincetown Playhouse in New York (known for producing the works of Eugene O’Neill) produced an English production with Rudolph Schildkraut playing the brothel owner.
It is here that the story of The God of Vengeance turns. The producer wants to bring it to Broadway, but feels the story must be cut to fit the up-town audience, but many felt the new version makes the play even more controversial. A Rabbi files an obscenity complaint and the entire cast, producers and theater owner are all arrested and convicted of indecency. (The conviction is later overturned).
Then we see how the play survives and how Asch – who concentrates on novels – moves into other controversial subjects including a trilogy on the New Testament.
During the course of the 100 minute play, a very talented cast of six plays a variety of roles.
Max Gordon Moore portrays Asch as a man of conviction though flawed. He admits he agreed to the cuts for the Broadway production without reading them and refuses to testify at the company’s criminal trial. Katrina Link is luminous as the prostitute Manke who falls in love with the daughter – on stage and with the actress in real life. Her commitment to the work is clear. Adina Verson plays not only Asch’s wife but also Rifkele, the daughter. Tom Nellis plays I.L. Peretz, the salon host but also the actor Rudolph Schildkraut with elegance and grace. Mimi Lieber plays the mother in Asch’s play and Steve Rattazzi plays the producer, the Rabbi and others.
Richard Topol serves as both the stage manager and the defender of the piece. His portrayal is heart-breaking as the young man from the provinces who first hears the play read and is totally transformed by it and is the stage manager/defender during its controversial production.
The movement choreographed by David Dorfman adds an elegant touch, especially the very graceful Tom Nellis.
The play begins as if the characters have been packed away for years, perhaps even buried and it moves among the various scenes with props pulled from old-fashioned suitcases.
Taichman as director has a sure hand at managing the multiple scene changes and characters in the play. She is aided by her production team – lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, costume designer Emily Rebholz, sound designer Matt Hubs and scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez.
Three fine musicians – Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva (both of whom composed the music) and Travis W. Hendrix – provide an accompaniment that is reminiscent of klezmer music.
Yet, Indecent is not a perfect play. Some scenes go on too long. The multiple repetitions of the final scene of God of Vengeance which is melodramatic to begin with began to generate audience laughter. We keep hearing about “the rain scene” between Rifkele and Manke as being the equivalent of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet so often that by the time we see parts of it, it cannot live up to the hype. Another scene near the end of the play with a list of Broadway musicals and plays projected does not tie in to the rest of the play. It seems like a heavy-handed attempt at commentary that is not effective and not necessary.
Indecent is a new play worth seeing not only because you will learn about a fascinating event in theatrical history, but because of the fine acting and thought provoking ideas.
It is at Yale Rep’s University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven, through Saturday, Oct. 24. For tickets contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 203-432-1234.
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