Paula Vogel's "Indecent" tells the tumultuous tale of another play, Sholem Asch's "God of Vengeance." First produced in 1907, this daring Yiddish drama revolves around a brothel keeper whose pretensions to conventional respectability are shattered when his daughter and one of the prostitutes who works downstairs from the family's home tenderly fall in love.
The intelligentsia by and large recognized the emergence of an important Yiddish literary voice. But if the presentation of a Jewish patriarch profiteering on sin wasn't bad enough, the purity with which Asch depicted the women's affection had conservative firebrands declaring war.
Was the artistic success of "God of Vengeance" good for the Jews? Not in the opinion of those who feared that the characters' immorality would only feed anti-Semitism. This wasn't an irrational worry in Europe, where pogroms didn't need any incentive.
In New York, "God of Vengeance" was safe when it was downtown, away from the media spotlight that draws mainstream moralizers. But when the play opened on Broadway in 1923, it caused such a scandal that the company was rounded up and charged with indecency.
In imaginatively tracing this journey, Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "How I Learned to Drive" and one of the most influential playwriting teachers in America for the last generation, explores the history of Jews in Europe and America in the first half of the 20th century, the role of the arts in moving society forward and the way attitudes toward homosexuality have served as a barometer for other forms of societal oppression. This might seem a lot to tackle, but Rebecca Taichman's fleet-footed production, which opened Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre, is up to the job.
Taichman won a Tony for her direction of "Indecent," which is as much a performance work as a scripted drama – an exemplary marriage, if you will, between writer and auteur. This touring production isn't as sharp as the Broadway original, but the epic narrative derived from the history of Asch's play is hauntingly captivating all the same.
As theatergoers enter the Ahmanson, they'll see a troupe of actors already seated on the stage in overcoats with suitcases at their sides. Under a projection of the play's title in English and Yiddish are the words "the true story of a little Jewish play."
The performers playing the cast members of "God of Vengeance" play a variety of other roles in "Indecent." As they rise from their seats, ash pours from their sleeves as though they are being granted, through the miracle of theater, an opportunity to resurrect themselves from the ash heap of history.
Four of the seven cast members and two of three musicians were in the original Broadway production. These musicians interweave themselves in the stage action of a play that behaves more like a musical – or music drama, to be more precise.
The elegiac score by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva is redolent with the buoyant melancholy of klezmer. The choreography by David Dorfman allows the actors to scamper across geography and chronology with grace even when the condensed storytelling gets jumbled.
Richard Topol reprises his Broadway performance as Lemml, the stage manager, a cousin of Thornton Wilder's similarly designated character in "Our Town." But Lemml isn't simply the de facto narrator of "Indecent." He also serves as the actual stage manager of "God of Vengeance" as it wends its way across Europe and eventually to New York, where, after becoming a hit downtown, it is moved to Broadway in a bastardized form that cuts the scene of lesbian tenderness but nonetheless affronts those eager to be affronted.
Vogel is "queering" history in "Indecent" – in other words, reading the past through an LGBTQ lens. Her sweeping synthesis is sensitive, balanced and enlightening. Reverent toward the Yiddish world that was lost, the play subtly connects the challenges Asch and his traveling company face (the plight of vulnerable immigrants, the perniciousness of anti-Semitism, the insidious dynamic between censorship and intolerance) to flashpoints today.
"Indecent" was originally produced by Yale Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse, where I reviewed it in 2015 before the work reached its pinnacle form on Broadway in 2017. Some of the playwriting weaknesses I noticed at La Jolla – the way, for instance, Vogel's particular passion for "God of Vengeance" is filtered through characters who speak in ways that don't always seem plausible or natural – were more effectively covered up in New York by the artistry and ardor of the company.
This touring version is patchier. At the reviewed performance, Topol's Lemml, the anchor of the production, seemed hoarse from over-emoting. It's still not clear to me what stirs the finest fibers of his soul about "God of Vengeance." Yes, the play changes the life of this former tailor, who becomes the stage manager after responding favorably to a disastrous reading of the work in a Warsaw salon that leaves Asch no choice but to try his luck elsewhere in Europe. But for all its intrepid modernity, "God of Vengeance" has some hoary melodrama in its DNA.
"Indecent" has fun spoofing the theatrical bombast as Asch's work picks up different national inflections while traveling from country to country. But Lemml's quasi religious fidelity to Asch's play suggests he's in the presence of a Chekhovian masterpiece. In truth, "God of Vengeance" is valuable more for its cultural history than for its artistic dexterity.
Curiously, Lemml responds to the play's lesbian kiss with the same gratitude as Vogel when, as a program note reports, she first read "God of Vengeance" as a graduate theater student at Cornell. She was longing to discover representations of same-sex love between women that didn't end in suicide. Lemml's motivation is more opaque.
Topol at least carries the milieu of the play in his mien and bearing. This is not the case for Joby Earle's Sholem Asch, whose presence and manner seem to belong more to our time than to his character's.
Fortunately, this is an ensemble piece, and there's strong, gritty work from Harry Groener and Mimi Lieber, who play an array of older characters. Elizabeth A. Davis and Adina Verson are achingly good as the romantic heart of "God of Vengeance." And Steven Rattazzi adds supporting color in old and new world guises.
Playwright Donald Margulies adapted "God of Vengeance" not that long ago, and his version was met with more historical curiosity than shock. Asch's writing still crackles, but the times have thankfully caught up to his compassionate boldness. Anyone today who would be offended by the romantic scene in the rain between the two women should be ashamed to admit it.
The love "Indecent" bears toward "God of Vengeance" is sometimes tendentious. But in delving into the reactions to Asch's work, Vogel and Taichman detect the dangerous currents that gave rise to 20th century atrocities. And in the beauty of this "little Jewish play," director and dramatist find artistic redemption from historical erasure.