An infamous kiss finds its way to Broadway via Paula Vogel's new play.
In the early 1920s a provocative play depicting two women in a romantic relationship came to a Broadway stage, the first time anything like that had taken place on the Great White Way. That relationship, made more controversial by the fact that one of the characters portrayed in the scene was a prostitute, led to the arrest of the cast and producers on charges of obscenity.
The women share an intimate kiss in the second act of the unexpurgated text of The God of Vengeance, the first play of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch. The God of Vengeance was largely forgotten until Paula Vogel made it the focus of her marvelous play Indecent, now at the Cort Theatre after an off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre last year. Under Rebecca Taichman's confident and inspired direction, Indecent has been polished to a lustrous shine for this staging, with an achingly poetic majesty that makes it one of the season's unique and essential Broadway events.
Indecent deals with the worldwide journey of The God of Vengeance from its beginnings to its later years of near oblivion. In the early 20th century, Sholem Asch (Max Gordon Moore) penned the play about a Jewish brothel owner whose daughter, Rifkele, falls in love with one of his prostitutes, Menke. Steeped in Freud and the intellectual ideas of the day, Asch's wife, Madje (Adina Verson), reads the play and sees in it the hallmarks of genius. But when it receives its first reading, the play is criticized by a group of indignant theater folks for presenting Jews as greedy and carnal, and for depicting an explicit love scene between two women.
Not everyone dislikes the play, though. The immigrant Lemml (played with poignant grace by Richard Topol) champions the Yiddish play as a masterpiece and makes it his life's work to bring it to audiences around the world with a loyal troupe of actors. It is an enormous success, but when the play eventually makes it to Broadway, the vice squad shuts it down. Years later, many of the actors have returned to Europe as the Third Reich rises to power. Despite the threat to their lives, they continue to perform the play in attics or wherever they can fit a small audience, until there are no safe places left.
Vogel has created a work that brings The God of Vengeance into the consciousness of modern audiences while tapping into topics such as religious views on homosexual love, religiosity used for selfish ends, and the harsh treatment of immigrants in America. But more than that, Indecent is a sumptuous theatrical experience, from its mysterious beginning to its heartrending, unforgettable end.
The off-Broadway cast is present in this production, and the exceptional performances have matured and deepened with the transfer. Most of the actors play several roles, all but the exceptional Topol as the stage manager Lemml. His performance is at once tender and full of anguish, showing us the pain and passion of a hopeful immigrant who has come to America only to find that the country is not truly a land of opportunity for everyone. Katrina Lenk also shines brilliantly in her role as the actor who portrays the prostitute Menke. Moore offers a dramatic transformation of Asch from an eager young writer to an embittered man who has witnessed the atrocities of war. Mimi Lieber also dazzles in the role of Esther and several others.
The opening scene, which shows the actors rising from the ashes in Emily Rebholz's hauntingly drab period costumes, might have presaged characters who are ghostly abstractions, but in this Broadway incarnation, they are complex, sympathetic humans. That's due largely to the production finding its lighter side, as when that stodgy group of theater people (Tom Nelis and Steven Rattazzi are stellar in their roles) react with comical outrage while reading through The God of Vengeance for the first time.
That humor gets the lifeblood of this serious-minded play pumping. So does John Miller's marvelous klezmer songs. Indecent, which is categorized as a play with music, features instrumentalists Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin, and Aaron Halva — on clarinet, violin, and accordion — dancing with the actors in several scenes depicting the acting troupe's travels (exciting choreography by David Dorfman). Riccardo Hernandez's set design and Tal Yarden's projections make clear that we are seeing theater as theater, with a simple stagelike platform and a proscenium arch rising in the background. The actors' deeply humane portrayals, however, make their characters seem not like ghostly figures on a stage, but like people we know and have known.
While the sight of two women showing romantic affection onstage does not shock audiences as it once did, there are, of course, places where Rifkele and Menke's kiss is still considered indecent, despite their play having traveled the world, but happily it has finally found its way to Broadway and to audiences who have a larger view of love.