‘INDECENT’: The cast. Photo: Carol Rosegg

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INDECENT
By Paula Vogel
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Cort Theatre
138 West 48th Street
212-239-6200, www.IndecentBroadway.com


By Scott Harrah

More than merely a drama about a play that shocked early 20th century audiences, Paula Vogel’s Indecent illuminates a dark period of history when anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment were rampant in America. No, the year is not 2017 but 1906 to the 1920s through 1940s. There are numerous themes and subtexts in this complex, fascinating and sometimes confusing drama, from the troubled staging of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s theatrical potboiler God of Vengeance to the disturbing tide of prejudice toward Jews and their culture evolving from the turn of the 20th century and onward.

This is the proverbial Brechtian epic, immediately grabbing one’s attention and posing questions about art, decency, and the boundaries of morality and faith. It’s exhausting yet riveting to watch from the opening scene, with Yiddish actors onstage speaking as ashes literally fall off their bodies. This is only the beginning of the layers upon layers of symbolism that unfold throughout the 100-minute show.

At first glance, one thinks the story is simply about Mr. Asch’s turgid Yiddish drama, a sensational tale about a brothel owner, his daughter, a prostitute, a lesbian affair and desecration of a Torah. Asch’s play was a hit on the Yiddish theater circuit in Europe, but scandalous indeed when it was translated into English and debuted in New York at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1922. Although the lesbian themes were toned down (and a Sapphic kissing scene cut) for the Broadway transfer to the Apollo Theatre in 1923, the cast and producer were arrested mid-performance for obscenity a few weeks into the run.

Indecent, however, is really less about the puritanical reaction to God of Vengeance in America and more of an homage to the death of Yiddish theater and the tragedy of Jews across the world from the early 1900s up through the Holocaust. In addition, the story shows how America, decades before feminism, could not handle not only homosexuality but anything that depicted women as something beyond wives, daughters or prostitutes.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Indecent is a visually arresting piece of theater. Seven actors portray “the troupe,” from Lemml, the stage manager of Asch’s play (Richard Topol), while others play musicians performing klezmer-style music (with original compositions by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva). The stage features constantly changing projections of Yiddish, Hebrew and English supertitles and scene settings, from Warsaw in 1906 (when Asch first wrote the play) to Berlin, various stages and attics across Europe to New York City. The action jumps around from city to city like a TV miniseries or popular novel (a narrative technique that is always tricky on the stage).

There is a frenetic lyricism to Rebecca Taichman’s direction of the actors, many of whom play multiple roles. It is Ms. Taichman’s manic pacing of the evolving plot, musicians and actors dancing in circles–and the endless projections of the supertitles–that keeps us glued to the action but grows tiresome at times.

Indecent is a show that has quite a backstory itself, with Ms. Taichman basing the chronicle of God of Vengeance (and its obscenity trial over the first lesbian kiss in American theater) as a directing thesis at Yale. She and Paula Vogel worked over a period of seven years to develop the opus, after productions at the Yale Rep, La Jolla Playhouse and an Off-Broadway run at the Vineyard last year.

There are outstanding ensemble performances here, from Richard Topol as Lemml and Max Gordon Moore as Sholem Asch to Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson as the actresses portraying lovers. Musicians Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva add an eerie, haunting sincerity to the play with their original compositions.

Yes, the show is over-the-top, overly poetic, and perhaps too cerebral and academic for its own good. However, the overall message of Indecent is what makes it so relevant and topical today. Because, much like the political climate leading up to World War II, we also now live in age of xenophobia and prejudice about sexuality, race and religion. It is chilling when one thinks that the censorship, bigotry and fascism that were pervasive in the days of God of Vengeance (and created so much human suffering) could easily be repeated in 21st century America.

 

Edited by Scott Harrah
Published April 18, 2017
Reviewed at press performance on April 15, 2017

 

 

Indecent

‘INDECENT’: (left to right) Aaron Halva (with accordion), Matt Darriau (with clarinet), Lisa Gutkin (with violin) & company. Photo: Carol Rosegg

 

‘INDECENT’: The cast. Photo: Carol Rosegg

 

‘INDECENT’: The cast. Photo: Carol Rosegg

 

‘INDECENT’: Max Gordon Moore & Richard Topol. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Indecent

‘INDECENT’: Max Gordon Moore & Richard Topol. Photo: Carol Rosegg

 

‘INDECENT’: Katrina Lenk & Adina Verson. Photo: Carol Rosegg

‘INDECENT’: Max Gordon Moore & Adina Verson. Photo: Carol Rosegg

‘INDECENT’: Adina Verson & Katrina Lenk. Photo: Carol Rosegg

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