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A CurtainUp Review
Indecent on Broadway
By Elyse Sommer
The central character in this Brecht-flavored play with music that Vogel and Rebecca Taichman have crafted is another play— Polish writer Sholem Asch's fledgling drama about Yekel, a brothel owner whose life of piety is a sham since his livelihood comes from the brothel below his living quarters. The double-life leading Yekel's comeuppance comes when the daughter he is determined to marry off to a respectable scholar falls in love with the most beautiful prostitutes in his stable. That brothel setting and a Romeo and Juliet style romance between those two young girls was bound to make God of Vengeance controversial; and the enraged brothel keeper's smashing that most holy symbol, a Torah, was a red flag for Jewish audiences concerned about anti-Semitism.
Like Ms. Vogel's Pulitzer Prize winning How I Learned to Drive Indecent premiered at the venerable Vineyard Theater near Union Square. It's now made that giant leap uptown, the first of the prolific playwright's plays to do so.
A small gem like this, with enough music and dancing to almost warrant being categorized as a musical, risks losing its unique intimacy when it transfers to a larger venue. But as again directed by Taichman, and with the original crafts team and cast on board, it retains the magic of an epic story simply told courtesy of a variety of theatrical devices — notably the multiple character casting, the back and forth between on and off-stage developments, interspersed music, and explanatory titles.
Though God of Vengeance was eventually abandoned by its author, Vogel and Taichman have used a small troupe of actors and musicians to resurrect it, or rather its history, to stunning effect. And, while the source play is Jewish, you don't have to be Jewish to understand and relate to it.
As I took my seat for my revisit to Indecent, I already knew the journey that those 7 actors and 3 musicians sitting immobile on stage would take. Somehow, the metaphorical parallel between their number and the quorum for a minyan or prayer for the dead, this time struck me with the force of a sledgehammer.
While that ominous beginning becomes all too real in the troupe's final 1943 performance, Indecent is nevertheless wonderfully entertaining and filled with humor. I wasn't bored for a minute watching the multi-tasking company enact the origins and history of Asch's revered but also reviled play, including bits and pieces from its actual content.
The story starts with 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. As the narrative takes us through rehearsals and snippets of the various productions Vogel's aim of honoring artists not afraid to present daring new ideas is richly realized.
God Of Vengeance challenged early 20th century theater goers' ideas about women loving each other. For Jewish audiences concerned about anti-Semitism, a Jewish character who keeps a brothel and winds up rejecting his faith by smashing that most holy symbol, a Torah, was especially troubling.
Given the play's thematic championship of those unwilling to trade their creative souls for money and position, God of Vengeance's author hardly comes off as its hero. When the lauded European actor Rudolph Shildkraut it as the vehicle for his Broadway debut, Asch was focused on writing novels rather than plays 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. Still, though he abandoned the play and it's champions, his desire to broaden the reach and impact of Yiddish literary works and his deepening and justified upset about escalating anti-Semitism is nevertheless part of this complex story.
Relegating the God of Vengeance author to a less prominent role actually works to the advantage of the play's structure that moves the narrative forward by having the ensemble play all the behind the scenes characters involved in the various productions, as well as the characters within the play. The one specifically identified and representing the play's conscience is Lemml, the stage manager (the terrific 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 affords the musicians a splendid turn to demonstrate 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 (who between last year's Indecent and the move to Broadway also did impressive work in another very fine intimate play with music, The Band's Visit ) that means playing all the actresses portraying them. Their characters include a Smith college girl (Verson) from Connecticut who falls in love with her partner during rehearsals for an Off-Broadway production and an amusing German diva (Lenk) who has no problem with a woman to woman love affair but feels "completely at sea about playing a Jew."
Verson and Lenk are most potent in a fairly full excerpt of the famous Rain Scene. The Cort couldn't accommodate a repeat of the Vineyard's underscoring that scene's kinship with Romeo and Juliet by setting part of it in an actual balcony. But that's a minor disappointment since the way the scene performed and staged is still a stunner.
It's tempting to single out Verson and Lenk and Richard Topol as standouts. But every cast member is a standout, changing characters and accents on a dime. Of the dozens of characters they play some of the most pungent ones show up during the Broadway shut-down debacle — for example, Rabbi Joseph Silverman of New York's Temple Emanu-El to whom the play is a particular affront, "a stone in the back from a fellow Jew". . .also a much more supportive Eugene O'Neill regrets having arrived in New York too late to testify n behalf of the play and players. He admires Asch for having "crafted a play that shrouds us in a deep, deep fog of human depravity" and views the two girls "like a beacon in a lighthouse."
While I'm handing out praises, bravo to Riccardo Hernandez's spare scenic design and Christopher Akerlind's lighting and Tal Yarden's artful and clarifying projections. More bravos to David Dorfman's stylishly stylized choreography and the pulsating ethnic music composed for Indecent by Lisa Gulkin and Aaron Halva.
If you've followed Ms. Vogel's work as I have, you'll see that Indecent actually, has a lot in common with her 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. But above all, Indecent continues her long-standing exploration of history and challenging family situations.
Ultimately, what makes Indecent even more powerful now than when I saw it last year is best summed up in Paula Vogel's program notes: "I didn't anticipate that Indecent would be as relevant today as it is; we are witnessing an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and, yes, anti-Semitism. We are in the midst of the strongest white nationalism since the 1920s when American borders were closed to immigrants. In this moment of time we must say that we are all Muslin. We must reclaim the importance of our arts and culture. We must remember where the closing of borders in the 20th century led nations around the globe."
Amen to that! And here's hoping New York audiences won't overlook this unique and deeply moving play for lighter, glitzier offerings. Go see and enjoy it, and embrace its message.
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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: Matt Darriiau (clarinet, bass clarinet, tin whistle), Lisa Gutkin (violin, mandolin), Aaron Halva (accordion, baritone Ukulele, percussions)
Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Sound Design: Matt Hubbs
Projection Design: Tal Yarden
Music Coordination: John Miller
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager: James Latus
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission
From 4/04/17; opening 4/18/17; closing 8/06/17.
Presented in association with its original collaborators: La Jolla Playhouse, Yale Repertory Theater and the Vineyard Theater
Cort Theater W. 48th Street
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/15/17 press preview
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