One of the joys—or woes—of live theater is its variability. An actor may be slightly off, the audience could be restless or something else may break the mood (Curse those cellphones!). On the other hand if you’re lucky all can fall into place and you’re treated to a wonderful performance. Fortunately that was the case when I saw “Indecent” last weekend at the Vineyard Theater in New York.
Created by Paula Vogel (author) and Rebecca Taichman (director), “Indecent” is a play about another play: Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” as well as the actors who perform it in its various incarnations. Written in 1907, “God of Vengeance” is the story of a Jew who runs a brothel in the basement of his home. Married to a former prostitute he seeks redemption through an arranged marriage between his innocent teen-aged daughter and a prized Talmudic scholar. He’s even commissioned a handwritten Torah to present to his future son-in-law as another mitzvah to wash away his sins. All comes to naught when Papa discovers daughter Rivkele has fallen in love with Manke, one of the girls downstairs, with whom she has spent the night. Enraged, he hurls the Torah to the floor and drags his daughter to the basement to work with his other girls. Curtain.
Although the play had been performed to great acclaim in Europe and in Yiddish theater in America, an English translation of “God of Vengeance” that opened on Broadway in 1923 was shut down, its cast and producers arrested and convicted of obscenity. Why? Because of the love scene between Rivkele and Manke, by turns lyrical and erotic, though most of it had been cut so as not to offend American sensibilities (The leading blue nose was a prominent Manhattan rabbi who denounced “God of Vengeance” from the pulpit as “bad for the Jews,” flying as this does in the face of Asch’s stated opinion: “Why must every Jew on stage be a paragon?”). Ultimately the actors’ convictions were overturned on appeal and the producers paid small fines, but not before the trial judge excoriated the play from the bench in a speech quoted in “Indecent” that just drips with the barely veiled antisemitism of that era.
But “Indecent” goes beyond that; it traces “God of Vengeance” from its inception to 1952 when Sholem Asch departed his adopted America for England. It’s not strictly biography or history but a cultural kaleidoscope. Presented by a company of seven actors and three musicians, “Indecent” sounds some essential themes: the power of theater, the beauty of love, the harshness of censorship, the homogenization of culture and ultimately the survivorship of the human spirit through art. And it does so with a deft touch.
Six of the actors play multiple roles in “Indecent;” the one constant is Lemml (Richard Topol), a Polish tailor drafted to participate in the first reading of “God of Vengeance,” who acts as stage manager for both plays. As is evident from his introductory remarks, the fulcrum of “Indecent” is the love scene in “God of Vengeance” between Rivkele and Manke, referred to as “the rain scene.” One aspect of what makes “Indecent” extraordinary theater is the way Ms. Vogel and Ms. Taichman use this throughout their play and the manner in which it ultimately unfolds—twice. We see bits, pieces and other allusions at various times, but experiencing the rain scene in full is the emotional high point of the evening, as it also is in “God of Vengeance.”
Along the way there’s musical commentary by the actors and musicians: a naughty Berlin cabaret song, klezmer, a “Goodbye, God, I’m off to America” number (in which Orthodox payess, or sidelocks, become a flapper’s curls), some Charleston and—you guessed it—an Andrews Sisters-style “Bei Mir Bist Du Schein” (Yiddish meets ’30’s swing). There’s also a cameo by Eugene O’Neill, who was set to testify in defense of the 1923 production of “God of Vengeance” before the judge disallowed his appearance. It should come as no surprise that his favorite aspect of the play is Asch’s take-down of the selling of religion.
It’s somehow fitting that the full performance of the rain scene is presented by a troupe in hiding from the Nazis in the wartime Lodz Ghetto. As Lemml announces, “We’re performing Act II tonight, and God willing, if we’re still here, Act III next week.” And Katrina Lenk (Manke) and Adina Verson (Rivkele) do so, with a perfect blend of tenderness and sensuality. You think “nothing can top this” until these actors perform the scene once more, this time in Yiddish, after a disillusioned Sholem Asch leaves America. But this time it really rains—on stage—so that Manke’s stated desire, to wash Rivkele’s hair in the May rain, can become as real as Asch intended. It’s a magical sight.
The cast of “Indecent” is uniformly excellent. They’ve stayed with the play through its various stages of development, and their experience shows. Likewise the expertise of Paula Vogel in writing playwright to playwright, as it were. “Indecent” is one remarkable achievement.
Unfortunately the play’s New York run is currently set to end on June 19. Here’s hoping it’s taped by PBS—both play and production have earned it.