The immensely talented lesbian playwright Paula Vogel stages her latest play, "Indecent," a look at Yiddish author Sholem Asch's seminal three-act play, "The God of Vengeance," and the beautiful lesbian love story at its heart.
Vogel told Playbill that she first read Asch's play when she was just 22 -- about the same age that Asch was when he wrote it. His 1907 play tells of a Jewish brothel owner and his chaste 17-year-old daughter who lives above it. The play was performed successfully for decades through Europe and was even a hit when translated into English and staged at Greenwich Village's Provincetown Playhouse.
Some viewed "The God of Vengeance" as a bold screed against the corrosive nature of religion, and others saw it as a spark of hope among the ruins. This spark came in the form of the play's seminal "rain scene," in which the chaste daughter and a young prostitute fall in love, and share a tender kiss in the rain. Somehow this scene elevated the proceedings by having the story focus on their love rather than iniquity.
But by the time the producer was ready to shift the play to Broadway, they decided to cut out this important scene, downgrading the action into a prostitute trying to lure a young girl into her trade. In 1923, right after it was moved to Broadway, the play was shut down and the cast of 12 were indicted and convicted of giving an immoral performance, "the first conviction ever by a jury in a case of this kind," as the New York Times noted.
Asch -- by then a recluse living in Staten Island, his playwriting days long behind him -- had given up artistic control of the play. Vogel portrays him at the end as someone who was tired with the horrors of life, and too embarrassed of only speaking Yiddish to show up and try to discern how the producers had altered his work.
In her depiction of the events, Vogel largely dispensed with depicting the trial, choosing instead to follow the development of the play from its first table read, during which local playwrights advised Asch to "burn it." During that first read, she installs the character of Lemml (Richard Topol), the only character identified with a real name in the program (the rest are just referred to as 'actor').
Uneducated Lemml is so struck by the beauty of Asch's play, he becomes the stage manager. He fights for the integrity of the play as it makes its way from Europe to America, but in the end, the promise of money trumps Asch's artful depiction of innocent love in a world of ugliness.
By focusing on the purity of the two women's love, and saving the staging of the central "rain scene" until late in the action, Vogel keeps the focus on the idea of redeeming love. But life, like the play, has a different ending -- one that finds the brothel owner condemning his own daughter and wife to make him money "on your back and on your knees" to repay him for ruining all chance for her profitable marriage.
Early on, Asch explains that his motivation for writing this controversial play in Yiddish was to keep their culture and their theater alive, to create "a Yiddish Renaissance." In her staging, Vogel does the same, by incorporating three musicians onstage and having her characters sing and dance in Yiddish. Her portrayal of Jewish culture and archetypes furthers Asch's original goal.
In addition, by showing the political climate surrounding every staging of "The God of Vengeance," the audience can see how public sentiment around Jews changed during each political conflict, such as one actresses' scathing laughter when Asch is referred to as a genius, scoffing, "A Yiddish genius? A Polack genius?"
They follow conflicts in St. Petersburg, the long lines at Ellis Island, assimilation into the American Jewish culture, the Holocaust, and rising anti-Jewish sentiment in America. It runs right into the conviction of the lead performer, after which the young actor from Smith takes off, proving that "when the going gets tough, the goyem get going."
It's hard to watch the ending, as Lemml founders without any help from Asch to speak in support of his play. He's moved on and is too haunted by the images he has seen in the pogroms to care about a play he wrote when he was just a youth.
But the power at the center of "The God of Vengeance" persists, and it is shown being secretly performed in the 1943 Lodz ghetto, as well as among the backdrop of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearing that Asch is dragged into over some youthful dalliances with socialism. The action ends in 1952 Connecticut, with a young Yale producer John Rosen vowing to stage "The God of Vengeance," over Asch's strenuous objections, even if he has to wait until the playwright dies to do it.
Noting, "it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Jew to enter Yale," Asch notes the young man's resolute determination, and both he and we realize that this play truly does have legs long enough to walk itself right into history.
Despite a bare-bones set featuring only the theater's brick wall, Vogel's team of talented actors manage to bring the action alive. Big kudos go to the actresses Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, and Adina Verson, who bring the characters of the young female lovers to the stage. The rest of the actors, who play multiple roles through the action, comport themselves very well.
Kudos as well to the musicians Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin, and Aaron Halva, who seamlessly incorporate themselves into the stage action. Clever use is made of projections to discern the Yiddish translations, and a big hand goes to Vogel's team for the use of many Yiddish song and dance combinations that show their cultural vibrancy.
If you're keen for a no-intermission play that runs a crisp hour and forty minutes and features lots of Jewish culture and winsome girl-on-girl makeout sessions, "Indecent" is truly a decent way to spend an evening.
"Indecent" runs through September 10 at The Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-257-8065 or visit http://indecentbroadway.com/