‘Indecent’ a searing portrait of theater, societal mores
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Paula Vogel’s inspired, timely, gracefully spare play, “Indecent,” which had a celebrated Broadway run and now appears at Victory Gardens in an energetically refined production directed by Gary Griffin, depicts the early 20th century rise and fall of a famously controversial play, Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance.”
When: Through Nov. 4
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $29 – $77
Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission
You could call it a docudrama, I suppose, in that it documents the history with compelling clarity. The story proper starts in 1906 with Asch’s own wife reading and adoring the play, particularly its pure take on the love of two lesbians. It moves quickly to the play’s first reading in a Warsaw salon, among a group of fellow Yiddish-language playwrights, who despise it both because of the lesbianism and, perhaps even more, the fact that its central figure is a Jewish brothel owner. This was decidedly not a representation of Jewish life that put the community’s best foot forward (except, of course, artistically).
But the play became a sensation nonetheless, playing throughout Europe and finally in the U.S., where it opened on Broadway in 1923, becoming the first such work to depict a lesbian kiss. A leading Rabbi, who felt the work perpetuated awful stereotypes at a time of dangerous anti-Semitism, complained to the authorities, and the entire cast was arrested and tried for indecency. Many of the cast members returned to Europe instead of staying in America, and Asch himself, after the Holocaust, refused to allow the play to be produced.
Although the play does indeed possess the narrative focus of a docudrama, it couldn’t be further in style from a documentary. From start to finish, “Indecent” embraces a high theatrical style, with the performers, in character, introduced by stage manager Lemml (an exceptionally likable Benjamin Magnuson) at the start as a troupe of players who will all then assay multiple roles, which they do with unreserved verve. Chalky black and white, English and Hebrew projections on an otherwise bare, black set, keep us aware of the time and place, with the phrase “a blink in time” frequently flashed, as the characters freeze for a moment to skip ahead in the story.
It’s this style that turns the play into a tribute to the theater itself, particularly the nearly extinct Yiddish theater. At once visually spare, musically rich (with the wistful sounds of klezmer played onstage), and theatrically joyous, this show has such a laser focus – every moment feels exact in the way it advances the narrative – that the full 100-minute running time breezes by in… a blink of time.
In fact, the play barrels forward so entertainingly that It really is only when it’s over that reflection enables a full appreciation of the richness and thematic sophistication that Vogel has packed into the tale.
The complexity is mostly embodied in Asch, played first by the smiling, idealistic ingenue (Noah LaPook), and then at the end by the wizened elder (David Darlow, who is also superb as the star of the play-within-a-play). He’s depicted as a genuinely admirable artist flawed enough to have let down his cast when they most needed him and ultimately troubled by his own work as he watches society degrade to the worst oppression. Vogel captures both the need for art to be daring, while acknowledging that the depiction of an oppressed people’s full humanity doesn’t necessarily make audiences more humane or empathetic. The current state of rising anti-Semitism adds even greater resonance.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and Griffin’s production particularly excels at two key moments. It’s just plain perfect when actors Darlow and Cindy Gold, as the brothel owner and his wife, repeatedly perform the last moment of “God of Vengeance” in quick succession, growing in the degree of melodrama they express. It’s all so compact, communicative, and amusing.
The moment of rawest power comes at the end, when the cast seemingly rises from death for a final moment, and we see the famous lesbian love scene, set in the rain, performed full-on, in Yiddish, by Catherine LeFrere and Kiah Stern, who throughout beautifully distinguish between an offstage and onstage love relationship. It tells us exactly why the play was so shocking, and so stunningly good.
I did miss the choreography of the New York production, captured in a PBS television version. It added a certain offbeat quality, nearly vaudevillian but also precise in its odd angles, that’s not present here. But Griffin’s production is always smooth, and, already filled with ideal moments, will likely gain even greater nuance during the course of the run.
Most importantly, like Vogel’s writing, Griffin’s direction accomplishes the rare feat of making seem straightforward a deep and deeply affecting story about story-telling.
Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.