(At Cort Theatre)
Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk. Photo by Carol Rosegg
When the deeply moving Indecent opened at the Vineyard Theatre last year, many wondered how the intimacy and emotion would transfer to a Broadway stage. At the Cort Theatre with the same cast, Paul Vogel's play about love, the power of art, threats of homosexuality, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and links to current hazards, fills the larger stage with the same passion and strength.
Below is a lightly edited version of Elizabeth Ahlfors' original review of the Off-Broadway production.
A kiss is just a kiss -- unless it is between two women on Broadway in 1923. Fear that the lesbian content of Sholem Asch's The God of Vengeance, would inflame anti-Semitism is what sent New York's Vice Squad to quickly close the controversial European play and keep it off New York stages for 93 years.
In 1906, Asch, a Polish Jew, wrote, The God of Vengeance, a Yiddish tale of a God-fearing man who seemed to enjoy a respectable life with his wife and daughter. What many did not know was that in his basement, he ran a brothel. Problems arose when his 17-year-old virginal daughter fell in love with one of the prostitutes. Furiously, the father banished his daughter to the basement with the prostitutes and threw the Torah to the ground.
The God of Vengeance was performed throughout Europe in the early part of the 20th century and was then translated into English and brought to the Provincetown Playhouse in New York. Problems arose with the two women involved in a lesbian relationship when the play moved uptown to Broadway's Apollo Theater. The cast and producer were indicted and convicted of obscenity. Interestingly, the judge did not mention lesbianism as the main profanity, stating that he resented the “desecration of the sacred scrolls of the Torah.” The play returned to Europe where it gained in power over the decades.
Indecent, playwright Paula Vogel's backstage play with music, takes us behind Asch's century-old drama, first playing at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre and currently at the Cort Theatre. Vogel co-created the play with Rebecca Taichman whose direction adds theatricality and music that captures the social mores, hypocrisy, culture and the power of art.
Writing Indecent, at Yale Rep, Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) followed the history of this provocative drama and the artists devoted to performing it in Europe through two World Wars, and the holocaust. The tale is told in a non-linear series of quick emotive scenes, blending past and present, portrayed with touching humor, joy, and pathos by seven actors playing multiple roles. With the three musicians, they open seated in a row with suitcases. Slowly the three klezmer musicians rise, begin moving with galvanizing choreography by David Dorfman across Riccardo Hernandez's spare stage. The actors follow and the plot begins.
The cast was set at Yale and remains the same, everyone playing multiple roles with sharp nuances. Using suitcases as props, the cast is costumed by Emily Rebholz in drab, indistinct costumes.
Outstanding is Richard Topol as Lemml, a sensitive narrator who is spellbound by the first reading of Asch's play calling it, "A play that changed my life." Enthusiastic and always supportive, he becomes the stage manager, dedicating himself to guiding the play through the decades until the final performances in the ghetto in Lodz.
Katrina Lenk (Manke) and Adina Verson (Rifkele) are poignant as the lovers, bringing a natural grace to the rain scene. Other performers are Max Gordon Moore as Sholem Asch, Tom Nelis, Mimi Lieber, and Steven Rattazzi.
The staging by Taichman (Familiar, Stage Kiss) is vivid with co-composers and music direction by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva. On Broadway, Matt Darriau is added playing the clarinet. Taichman adds Tal Yarden's projections, and Christopher Akerlind's severe shadowy lighting points forebodingly toward a tragic ending, recalling Lemml's prophetic words at the top of the play, "Every night we tell this story, but somehow I can never remember the end."
Memorable is the drama's beginning and ending with an imaginative metaphor of dust alluding to time and humanity. Indecent is a fascinating production of intense sensitivity and the inherent constancy of the human spirit and the enduring power of art.
138 - West 48 Street
Produced in association with La Jolla Playhouse and Yale Repertory Theatre
Opened: April 4, 2017. April 16, 2017. Closes: Open Run
One hour, 45 minutes. No intermission
Co-created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman
Playwright: Paula Vogel
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Cast: Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Richard Topol, Adina Verson
Co-composers/Music Direction/Performers: Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva, Matt Darriau
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Also appearing in TotalTheater.com