Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
As written by Vogel and staged by Eric Rosen, the performance arises from the dust of history. On the surface it's a play about a play, but its depths explore the stories people tell and the messages they convey in their own times and later.
Polish Jewish author Sholem Asch (Max Wolkowitz) wrote The God of Vengeance in 1906. It was controversial from the start, concerning a Jewish brothel owner determined to keep his teenage daughter innocent, and the daughter finding love and acceptance with one of her father's employees. Lemml (Ben Cherry), a young tailor, attends the first reading of the play in 1906 and it transforms his life. He becomes a stage manager and follows the production throughout Europe, to New York where it is translated into English, and ultimately to Broadway in 1923where the cast is arrested on charges of obscenity and indecency, partly because the play included the first lesbian kiss on a Broadway stage.
This story seems almost too rich in possibility to be true, with its sympathetic theatrical portrayal of a lesbian relationship (which, according to Vogel, Asch wrote inspired by the love between himself and his wife), both onstage and among the actors; the concern of conservative Jewish leaders that the play could spur anti-Semitism; Asch's reaction to pogroms and other attacks on Jews in Europe, leading up to the Holocaust; and how an artwork takes on its own life distinct from the creator's intent.
Cherry, impassioned and heartbreaking, is the only performer who plays the same character throughout, but the entire 10-member cast, including three musiciansformed by Rosen into a tight ensembledoes exemplary work. One scene shifts seamlessly into the next, with Jack Magaw's scenic design providing effortless transitions between locations, Josh Epstein's scene-setting lighting design, and Jeffrey Cady's projections providing contextual supertitles in English and Yiddish.