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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
With its numerous choreographed and sung scenes, Indecent is almost an all out musical more than a play with music. But why worry about categorizing it, when what counts is that this is a not to be missed collaboration between Vogel and Taichman, and three outstanding theater companies: Yale Rep, La Jolla Playhouse in California ( Yale Rep review, La Jolla review)— and now New York's venerable Vineyard Theatre where I first saw and was enthralled by a Paula Vogel play, her Pulitzer Prize winning How I Learned to Drive.
Vogel's script follows God of Vengeance's birth pangs and its triumphant and also troubled journey from Asch's typewriter to theaters in Europe, Russia — and eventually the United States where its Broadway production was closed down despite the excision of a lesbian love scene. While the plot takes us through rehearsals and snippets of the various productions of this ground breaking play, Indecent is more than anything a homage to all artists — the performers and producers as well as creators — who risk peer and social condemnation to present new and even uncomfortable ideas.
God Of Vengeance, challenged all early 20th century theater goers' ideas about women loving each other. Having a Jewish character who keeps a brothel and winds up rejecting his faith by smashing that most holy symbol, a Torah, was especially troubling for Jewish audiences concerned about antisemitism.
Given the play's thematic championship of those unwilling to trade their creative souls for money and position, Asch actually falls short of being the play's hero. When the lauded European actor Rudolph Shildkraut chose God of Vengeance as the vehicle for his Broadway debut, Asch was focused on writing novels and gave unsupervised leeway to the Broadway producers to do what they deemed necessary to avoid immorality condemnation. When the show was closed down and the actors charged with indecency, Asch refused to testify in court on their behalf and pretty much abandoned the play. That said, his desire to broaden the reach and impact of Yiddish literary works and his deepening concern about growing antisemitism is nevertheless part of this rich and complex play. Though very much an entertainment this chronicle of the play's history affectingly dramatizes the larger dangers facing — and devastating — European Jewry in the 1930s and 1940s.
Relegating the God'of Vengeance author to a less prominent role works to the advantage of Vogel's storytelling device of having the acting ensemble play all the behind the scenes characters involved in the various productions, as well as the characters within the play. The one character specifically identified and representing the play's conscience is Lemml, The Stage manager, a fine performance by Richard Topol. He sets the scene by introducing the company and the characters they will be playing. Each does a quick spin on his or her overall type. This includes a terrific turn by the musicians that demonstrates their physical showmanship as well as their instrumental virtuosity.
The most moving and controversial roles belong to the brothel keeper's daughter Rifkele and the prostitute Manke. For Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk that means playing all the actresses portraying them. That includes a Smith college girl from Connecticut who falls in love with her partner during rehearsals for an Off-Broadway production; also an amusing German diva who has no problem with a woman to woman love affair but feels "completely at sea about playing a Jew."
Of course, Verson and Lenk are most potent in a fairly full excerpt of the famous Rain Scene which, in a clever nod to Rudoph Schildkraut's declaration that it matched the power of the similar setting in Romeo and Juliet, features a moment in a Vineyard balcony. As performed here and staged with the rain pouring onto the stage, this is certainly as touching and exciting as any of the Bard's balcony scenes I've seen.
Though it's tempting to single out Verson and Lenk and Richard Topol as the cast's standouts, there isn't a weak link in the rest of this cast. The same is true of the characters, all of whom are consistently interesting. Some of the most pungent ones show up as part of the Broadway shut-down debacle; for example, Rabbi Joseph Silverman of New York's Temple Emanu-El and a big supporter Pulitzer playwright Eugene O'Neil.
Silverman in a sermon to his congregation explains his condemnation of the play with "I expect scurrilous lies to my face from the crackpots who call themselves Christian— But to be hit by a stone in my back by a fellow Jew!" The rabbi did concede the possibility of societal changes such as legalized prostitution and two Jewish women being able to exchange vows under the chuppah. But as Silverman posits this is as unlikely as pigs flying and our dining on flying pig as we do on the feathered birds of the air."
O'Neill expresses regret to Lou, the Broadway production's stage manager, about having arrived too late to testify on behalf of the play and its players. He admires Asch for having "crafted a play that shrouds us in a deep, deep fog of human depravity." To him those two girls were like a beacon in a lighthouse and he tells Lou to urge Asch to actively defend it.
As the Rain Scene is the play's emotional high point, the repetition of certain key scenes underscores the variation of styles which successfully blend of drama, vaudeville and documentary. The active participation of the musicians, David Dorfman's choreography, Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva's ethnic music enhance the natural and highly enjoyable shifts in mood and style. The rest of the design team is also perfectly in tune with Vogel and Taichamn's vision.
Actually, this distinctive and wonderfully entertaining new work has a lot in common with Ms. Vogel's 2002 < A Civil War Christmas which used an ensemble of eleven actors playing dozens of legendary and real characters to spice up a story from another era with songs. Above all, Indecent continues her long-standing exploration of history and challenging family situations.
Besides nurturing her own talent, Paula Vogel has spent many years nurturing budding playwrights at Brown University. Though unplanned, one of her pupils, Quiara Alegria Hudes, who has like her mentor received a Pulitzer, also has a new play (Daphne's Dive ) running Off-Broadway around the same time.
This production completes Indecent's triple producing collaboration. Hopefully, the already sold-out run will extend and then see the play continue its life.
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Indecent by Paula Vogel
Created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Choreographed by David Dorfman
Co-Composers and Music directors: Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva
Cast:: Richard Topol (Lemml, The Stage Manager), Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Adina Verson (the Actors)
Musicians: Lisa Gutkin (violin, mandolin), Aaron Halva (Acordion, Baritone Ukulele, Percussions)
Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Sound Design: Matt Hubbs
Projection Design: Tal Yarden
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission
Vineyard Theatre inn association with La Jolla Playhouse and Yale Repertory Theatre W. 15th Street
From 4/27/16; opening 5/17/16; closing 6/12/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/12/16 press preview
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