Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Indecent ***

Borrowing from “Shuffle Along,” I could say that “Indecent” might well be subtitled  “The Making of the Broadway Sensation of 1923 and All That Followed.” Pulitzer-winner Paula Vogel has written a complex, ambitious work, “created by” herself and director Rebecca Taichman, about the rocky history of “God of Vengeance,” Sholem Asch’s controversial 1907 play. The melodramatic story of a Jewish brothel owner whose daughter falls in love with one of his prostitutes, the play’s second act contains the notorious “rain scene” that shows the tender love between the two women. The depiction of Jews as pimps and prostitutes and the desecration of a torah in the final scene made the play problematic. After a striking opening image, the present play takes us from Asch’s play’s raucous first reading at a Warsaw salon for Yiddish writers through its success in several European capitals to its move to the Bowery, then on to Greenwich Village. To secure an English-language production on Broadway, the producer, much to the devoted cast’s dismay, excised the rain scene. Nevertheless, inflamed by condemnation by the rabbi of Temple Emmanuel, the city closed the play down after one performance and successfully tried the cast and producer for obscenity. Asch neither protested the play’s mutilation nor attended the trial to defend the loyal cast. Allegedly, he had just returned from a mission to Eastern Europe and was too traumatized by what he saw there to care much about what happened to his play. The transformative power of his play on the devoted cast who perform it for so many years is in stark contrast with Asch’s loss of interest in it. I fear that the present play attempts to tell too many stories at once: the importance of Yiddish literature and especially Yiddish theater, the bonds within a theater troupe, the positive presentation of lesbianism, the fear of encouraging anti-Semitism, the difficulties of assimilation, fragments of Asch’s long career and the tragic loss of a Yiddish audience. The playwright posits a final performance of Asch’s play in an attic in the Lodz Ghetto. The entire cast is superb: Richard Topol is Lemml, the stage manager. The other actors — Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi and Adina Verson — all play multiple roles and succeed in making us care about characters that are not that fully developed. The production is greatly enhanced by a trio of klezmer musicians and choreography by David Dorfman. The set by Riccardo Hernandez is simple but effective and Emily Rebholz’s costumes are appropriate. While there is much to admire in this production at Vineyard Theatre, the many elements did not cohere as well as I would have liked. Perhaps my expectations were too high because of my high regard for the previous work of both the playwright and the director. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission. NOTE: Do not get front row seats because the stage is very high.

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