After decades of writing powerful works for the American stage (The Baltimore Waltz, How I Learned to Drive) and fighting on behalf of women in the theater, Paula Vogel has finally made it to Broadway. (She also earned a Lifetime Achievement Obie last week, occasioning a profile in these pages.) Her latest, Indecent, imagines the production history of Sholem Asch’s 1907 Yiddish drama, God of Vengeance, as it tours the world to great acclaim — before being closed at its own Broadway debut on obscenity charges stemming from its frank depiction of same-sex desire. Treating Asch’s play as a prism, Vogel refracts a larger history of American and European Jews in the theater, raising questions about how oppressed peoples can represent themselves during shifting and dangerous times.
Despite its notoriety, Asch’s play is still largely understudied and underappreciated in America, apart from specialists and researchers of Yiddish theater. To this end, Indecent takes its audience on a welcome, half-imagined trip through theater history. Vogel herself apparently discovered God of Vengeance almost by accident, while a Ph.D. student at Cornell in the Seventies. Eager to read plays depicting lesbian love, she followed a tip from her adviser, Bert States, to look it up. In her program note, she claims she “raced to the library, found a yellowing copy of an out-of-print translation,” began reading right there in the stacks, and “couldn’t put the play down.” Her co-creator, Indecent director Rebecca Taichman, had a similar conversion to Vengeance some twenty years later at Yale.
One doesn’t need to know Asch’s writing to follow Vogel and Taichman’s work, but Indecent will inspire you to get acquainted. Against a spare backdrop, the cast of seven performers and three onstage musicians spin the story of Indecent into one of tragedy and survival, full of clarity, tenderness, and warmth. Six of these performers appear in the playbill as portraying unnamed “Actor” roles, and they take on a variety of historical characters over the course of the evening. Max Gordon Moore and Tom Nelis share the part of Asch at various stages of life as he composes the play and skyrockets to fame. Anchoring the action, however, is Richard Topol as Lemml, the play’s artless stage manager through all its productions — from Berlin to the Bowery to Broadway — and the only character who appears with a fixed name in the show’s dramatis personae. Topol gives a touching performance, growing into the role with each scene, lending Lemml depth and gravity en route to the play’s somber conclusion.
The production’s supporting cast members do similarly outstanding work. Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, and Adina Verson all embody their roles with richness and pathos, particularly when Lenk and Verson re-create Asch’s allegedly “indecent” lesbian love scene under rainfall. But just as Indecent traces the story of Vengeance through its many different collaborators, the cast of actors and musicians assembled by Vogel and Taichman stands as their production’s great strength: The group creates its vividly bittersweet narrative together, as a team. Though Vogel deserves credit for crafting a sensitive play and for her overall achievement in the theater, a still greater message is meant to resonate in this ensemble structure. In dark times that threaten artists and oppressed minorities alike, collaboration is not only a reprieve — it’s a means of resistance.
138 West 48th Street
Through September 10