My review of INDECENT: History lesson about a forgotten Yiddish play opens tonight on Broadway
Last Edit: jesse21 10:48 am EDT 04/18/17
Posted by: jesse21 10:47 am EDT 04/18/17


Indecent, which opens tonight at Broadway’s Cort Theatre, tells the story of “The God of Vengeance, ” a 1906 Yiddish play by Sholom Ash that played Europe and then actually made it to Broadway’s Apollo Theatre in 1923 in an English translation. It was branded “indecent” by the New York City authorities because of a frank lesbian love scene, not to mention that many in the Jewish community found it anti-Semitic. The show’s producer and leading man were tried on obscenity charges.

With Indecent, playwright Paula Vogel is finally making her Broadway debut at age 65. In many ways, the reception to “The God of Vengeance” mirrors the homophobia that greeted her own early plays. She co-created Indecent with director Rebecca Taichman who stages it in a highly-stylized minimalist fashion.

Their work first surfaced at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015, then played the La Jolla Playhouse and last spring at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre. In all three cases, it was greeted by highly positive reviews. While I completely understand the accolades, I found myself pretty much uninterested and uninvolved as I viewed the play for the first time late last week.

It was the polemics that did me in. Indecent is not so much about bringing what is described as a lost Yiddish masterpiece back to life as it is a history of European Jews between 1906 in Warsaw when “Vengeance” first surfaced and 1952 in Connecticut during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt. Placing “The God of Vengeance” in a historical context definitely gives Indecent thematic scope way beyond just resurrecting an old play. Yet, for me, I felt I was getting too big a dose of already well-known and often-dramatized historical background and too little of what supposedly made “Vengeance” so powerful a play.

I must say that Ms. Taichman’s staging is striking. On an almost blank stage with a screen as a backdrop, seven actors and three musicians are sitting on chairs at the back of the playing area from the time the house opens its doors to customers. When they move into position on a wooden platform as the play begins, dust blows out of the sleeves of their costumes, the “rising from the ashes” suggests a lost play and a lost culture, not to mention Hitler’s crematoriums. That device is repeated during the 105-minute running time as a major motif. The three klezmer musicians, when not performing music of joy or pain, also play roles in scenes. All actors assume more than one role except for an excellent Richard Topol (last in Larry David’s Fish in the Dark) who plays Lemml, the stage manager who was associated with “Vengeance” for the 46 years Indecent tracks. The screen in the background performs a key role. Projections spell out the language being spoken (English, Yiddish or German), some inner character thoughts and to announce a “blink in time” when the story fast-forwards. Without that “blink in time” visual, the play’s text itself might confuse.

“The God of Vengeance” (original Yiddish title: “Gott fun Nekoma”) is about a upstanding Jewish family that secretly runs a profitable brothel in their basement. Neophyte playwright Sholem Asch (played by Max Gordon Moore recently in Man from Nebraska at Second Stage), wants to write a universal play about hypocrisy in Jewish life. His wife describes its themes as “The roots of all evil: the money, the subjugation of women, the false piety. . . .”

Mr. Moore and the other actors essay various roles. Among them, Tom Nelis (last on Broadway in The Visit as the understudy who performed the lead male role after Roger Rees fell ill) is particularly effective as the famed actor Rudolph Schildkraut starring in the Berlin production of “Vengeance.”

Toward the end of Indecent, we do get a re-enactment of the lesbian kiss scene during a big rainstorm (making more sense here than in the current Glass Menagerie revival) between a prostitute (Katrina Lenk. last in Once) and the brothel owner’s virgin daughter (Adina Verson in a fine Broadway debut). This scene elicited several sobs from audience members seated near me.

Paula Vogel won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for her How I Learned To Drive. But for me, her most important legacy is not her own playwriting but her 30 years teaching at Brown and Yale where she nurtured so many women writers, Lynn Nottage and Sarah Ruhl among them.

While I wasn’t enamored with Indecent, I commend lead producers Daryl Roth, Elizabeth I. McCann and Cody Lassen for bringing such an unusual play to a wider audience.

★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

- Jesse


  • Photos: production stills.

  • Video: productin montage (Time 1:00).

  • Meet the Cast: bios.

  • Article: For Paula Vogel, a Once-Banned ‘Beautiful’ Love Story Inspires Her New Play by Laura Collins-Hughes, The New York Times, 5-5-2016.

  • Article: Why Klezmer Music Haunts Broadway's 'Indecent' by Frank Rizzo, tdf Stages, 4-11-2017.

  • INDECENT opens Tuesday, April 18, 2017, at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York City. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. No intermission. Open-ended engagement. Tickets currently on sale through September 10, 2017. Link to website.


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