Theater

“This Play Changed My Life”

Paula Vogel’s Indecent and the power of theater

by

Lisa Gutkin (co-composer, standing) and Katrina Lenk (acting troupe, crouching) fiddle in Indecent
Lisa Gutkin (co-composer, standing) and Katrina Lenk (acting troupe, crouching) fiddle in Indecent

Lemml appeared, emerging from reams of research like a moth from a musty box. He flitted around Paula Vogel’s mind and then alighted, asserting himself as the main character of the play that was beginning to take shape in her imagination. Like the stage manager in Our Town — Vogel has written that for American dramatists “all roads lead back to Thornton Wilder” — Lemml would guide the audience through Indecent, her poetic exploration of Yiddish culture, female desire, theatrical power, and censorious American anxiety about all three.

“I can’t explain how he appeared,” says Vogel, who developed Indecent over seven years with co-creator and director Rebecca Taichman. “My characters just do that, and I fall in love with them. Lemml had a sweetness about him. He looked like Jack Gilford, whom I adored.” She speaks in measured, emphatic cadences and fixes an interlocutor in the warm, unswerving gaze of her blue-gray eyes. The effect is hypnotic.

The fact that Lemml became a stage manager certainly owes a debt to Wilder, but it also has to do with Vogel’s own half-century love affair with the theater. As a high school student in the late 1960s in Maryland — “a very Southern state” — and already feeling the stirrings of same-sex desire, Vogel found a home backstage.

She sensed that directing was considered a province for men. What’s more, she says, “I thought that acting was natural to heterosexual girls because they were already acting, and to be directed by some young man telling me what it felt like to be a woman — that was agony for me.” As a stage manager, though, “I could climb ladders, move equipment, and be absolutely competent and capable.” That was a welcome antidote to having to wear white gloves to school dances and carry a purse that matched her pumps.

Stage-managing also afforded Vogel a valuable perspective on “backstage human behavior that is not conscious and the studied transformation of human behavior onstage,” she says. This meta-theatrical double vision may be the one trait that runs consistently through Vogel’s varied dramatic oeuvre — that, and an unnerving humor.

As one of America’s most formally and thematically daring playwrights, Vogel has continually experimented over the last four decades. The Baltimore Waltz (1992), which won an Obie for Best New American Play, memorializes her brother Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988; it traces a man and his ailing sister’s rollicking trip to Europe, with a waltz-like structure, taking place in the three realms of fantasy, memory, and reality. The Long Christmas Ride Home (2003) uses Bunraku puppets to represent the childhoods of the adult characters who manipulate them.

All the while, Vogel’s work has challenged audiences to examine their assumptions about gender, sexuality, violence, and family — including feminist assumptions. Hot ’N Throbbing (1994) deliberately confuses reality and representation to question (among other things) whether women can escape misogynist narratives even in their own sexual fantasies. In her most famous — and most unsettling — play, Obie and Pulitzer winner How I Learned to Drive (1997), Vogel returns again and again to a scene of a girl’s incestuous violation and, disturbingly, empowerment: Her uncle, teaching his niece how to drive, bestows a means of control and self-sufficiency even as he negates those lessons by abusing her in the car. The play changed how the theater — and the country — could think not only about trauma in terms of victimization, but also, as Vogel has often said, “about the gifts we receive from those who hurt us.”

But ask Vogel to take stock of nearly four decades of achievement and she slyly changes the subject to other playwrights — her influential “three gods,” Caryl Churchill, María Irene Fornés, and John Guare; her early and beloved experimental colleagues Connie Congdon, Jeff Jones, and Mac Wellman; the downtown innovators “who made such an imprint on me,” like David Greenspan, Mabou Mines, and the Wooster Group. “That’s the world of the Obies,” she notes, which have always awarded the “incredible bravery of the heart of our field.” She also extols the “brilliance” and “bravery” and “genius” of her former students during her twenty years heading the playwriting program at Brown and four at Yale, among them Ayad Akhtar, Nilo Cruz, Quiara Alegría Hudes, and Sarah Ruhl.

Vogel’s not shy about admitting to some frustrations in her own career as she makes her Broadway debut with Indecent at age 65 — she’s feeling “jubilation with a soupçon of rage.” But, she insists, her voice rising, she’s more outraged by Lynn Nottage waiting to see her first Tony nomination till age 52, and by the lack of productions of such works as Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, or plays by Christina Anderson, Dan LeFranc, Gregory Moss — “I can go on and on and on.”

Over the years, Vogel has made a quiet practice of calling up young playwrights — especially women — after they’ve received a dismissive review, and taking them out for coffee and a pep talk. “I guess that’s part of the stage manager in me, too,” she says. “I’m a caretaker.”

Looking out for a young playwright’s work also ends up becoming Lemml’s role in Indecent. Weaving a theatrical tapestry of period songs, interstitial dances choreographed by David Dorfman, and original music by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva performed by a three-piece klezmer band, Indecent tells the story of God of Vengeance, a play written by the Yiddish author Sholem Asch in Warsaw in 1906.

God of Vengeance focuses on a brothel keeper who tries to buy respectability and a dowry for his daughter by commissioning a copy of a Torah scroll. But even as he is completing the deal, his daughter, Rivkele, runs off with Manke, a prostitute in his employ. The second act features a love scene in which the two women frolic together in the May rain; in 1907, the great Yiddish playwright Yankev Gordin famously likened their encounter to the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.

At the end of 1922, a production opened in English at the Provincetown Playhouse and transferred to Broadway a few months later. Though the rain scene was trimmed down for the move uptown, a Reform rabbi, concerned about perceptions of Jews at a time of virulent anti-Semitism and rising immigration restrictions, lodged a complaint under anti-obscenity laws, and the entire cast was arrested.

Indecent presents snippets of Asch’s drama as it traces the complicated fate of the old play, and the culture the work came from. We see God of Vengeance played successfully in Europe and Russia and on the Yiddish stages of New York, endure the scandalous Broadway performance in 1923, and watch it take shape two decades later in an attic in the Łódź ghetto. While Asch is a central character, aging from hotheaded youngster in Poland to beleaguered post-Holocaust Yiddishist in America, God of Vengeance itself is Vogel’s protagonist. A seven-member ensemble plays some forty roles, among them the actors who perform Asch’s play all over the world.

Much to Lemml’s disappointment, Asch doesn’t fully defend his play and its actors. The stage manager confronts the author before he returns to Poland, taking the Yiddish manuscript with him. “This play,” Lemml ardently asserts, “changed my life.”

Vogel and Taichman can make the same claim. Vogel was a graduate student at Cornell in the 1970s, toughing it out as an open lesbian, when she first read Isaac Goldberg’s 1918 translation of God of Vengeance while standing transfixed in the library. The “lyricism” and “lack of moralizing” in the love scene, she recalls, bowled her over and widened her sense of possibility for her life as an artist.

Some 25 years after Vogel’s epiphany in the stacks, Taichman, then a directing student at Yale, read about God of Vengeance in a book about theater and gender that had just come out. (Full disclosure: I’m the author of that book and, as a result, was invited to offer notes on Indecent during rehearsals.) In love with a woman at the time, and the granddaughter of a Yiddish poet, Taichman burned to know more and decided to build her MFA thesis around Asch’s play. In what seemed like a sign that the project was beshert — destined — Taichman found that Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library held Asch’s papers and those of Harry Weinberger, the lawyer who produced God of Vengeance on Broadway and defended it against obscenity charges. In 2000, she swimmingly passed her thesis requirement with a production of The People vs The God of Vengeance, which drew from the trial transcripts she’d found in the archives.

As Taichman’s career blossomed — across the country, she directed works by, among others, Shakespeare, Bock and Harnick, and Ruhl — Asch’s genius still tugged at her. “I felt that I had come to know these people and this moment in such an intimate way, and that somehow I had to try to caretake their memory,” she says. When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival invited Taichman to participate in its American Revolutions series of new works “sprung from moments of change in United States history,” she proposed it to OSF’s artistic director, Bill Rauch. Taichman was ready to hand over the many boxes of photocopies she’d made at the Beinecke to “a real playwright”; she mentioned the project to a former teacher she ran into at the theater, and he suggested Vogel, which struck Taichman as “audacious.” Why, Taichman wondered, would as distinctive and accomplished an artist as Vogel latch onto someone else’s obsession?

But when Taichman and Rauch called, Vogel remembers, “It was like one Trekkie finding another.” As they spoke, an image came into Vogel’s mind: an acting troupe in an attic. “I don’t think it’s just about the obscenity trial,” she told Taichman. “I think it’s larger than that.”

Taichman replied: “You can go anywhere you want.”

It was a good artistic match, too. “Paula and Rebecca understand emotion and abstraction and their relation to each other similarly,” notes Ruhl. “They know how to make space for an audience’s imagination and empathy to pour in.”

Now, for a second time, God of Vengeance would change Vogel’s life. Over seven years and more than forty drafts, as the pair hunkered down at workshops and retreats like Sundance and the MacDowell Colony and then brought the production to fruition at the Yale Repertory Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, and Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theater, Vogel threw herself into researching Yiddishkayt. Born to a Christian mother and a Jewish father, Vogel remembers how relatives on her mother’s side fixed her with the nickname “the Yankee Jewgirl,” and being told, all through her life, that she was just like her brainy and argumentative father (who left Vogel’s family when she was ten). Her partner of 28 years (and, since 2004, her wife) comes from the Jewish left — “This was the family I was meant to be born in,” Vogel jokes. “OK, I’ll just marry into it.”

But before Taichman rang, Vogel had never fully studied that piece of her heritage. She dove into the materials Taichman had amassed, plus Asch’s sizable oeuvre of plays, stories, and novels, and innumerable volumes on Jewish history and literature. She consulted historians and interviewed Asch’s descendants. “I had to please the experts,” she says, explaining that when she invented a plot point she’d ask a scholar, “Could you believe that…?” Plausibility, she figured, could assure the artistic truth of the story even if it strayed from a particular fact.

Now that the courageously forthright lesbian writer has penned her Jewish coming-out play, is the move to Broadway marking the third way Asch’s 110-year-old play is changing Vogel’s life? Not so much. Proud to bring a piece of Yiddish theater and Broadway’s first lesbian kiss back to the neighborhood, and chuffed that she and Taichman have each been nominated for Tony Awards, Vogel finds it amusing that people are asking her, “gently and kindly,” how it feels to be making her Broadway debut at age 65 — “as if I were the oldest living virgin until now.” She lets out a laugh and crinkles those intense blue-gray eyes. “I haven’t been waiting,” she says. “I have been having a lot of fun in theaters all over the country.”