By Karen Isaacs
“Indecent,” the new play by Paula Vogel blends music, dance, song, scenes from the famous Yiddish play “The God of Vengeance” and the history of the play so seamlessly that you are entranced.
It weaves these multiple stories plus episodes from the life of its author Sholem Asch to create a multi-dimensional piece performed by a true ensemble. Six actors are assigned multiple roles based on age — the two older play an older characters, the 40ish actors play characters of that age and the younger performers play the younger characters. Yet you never are confused about who is playing which character.
With the exception of Richard Topol who plays the stage manager/narrator (as well as other characters), the program simply lists them as “actor”.
The piece was directed by Vogel and Rebecca Taichman who has been with the project since its beginning. It had its world premiere at Yale Rep in 2015 and won numerous awards from the Connecticut Critics Circle. It then played off-Broadway before now making it to the Great White Way.
During its travel, the same cast has remained with it as well as the same production team and musicians.
The Broadway production is stronger than the one I saw at Yale. Yet it retains the essence of the story.
For most theatr-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.
The men start reading the play but are soon horrified. The play tells the story of a Jewish man who runs a brothel, his wife is one of his former prostitutes and he has a virginal daughter. But the daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes to her father’s horror.
Yet the play was produced in Berlin with the great actor Rudolph Schildkraut as the father, 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 (including Schildkraut) 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.
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 revised to fit the up-town audience; Asch lets the producer do it, but never reads the changes. His English was very limited and he had turned his attention to writing novels. Many felt the new version makes the play even more controversial; instead of a love story between the prostitute and the daughter, the prostitute is simply trying to recruit the daughter the life. 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).
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.
Indecent is a fascinating play that any theater lover should see. It explores a piece of theater history as well as raising challenging questions about the role of literature for minority populations.
It is at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. For tickets visit Telecharge.