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A controversial masterpiece of Yiddish theater comes to life in Paula Vogel's new play with music.

Richard Topol stars as Lemml in Paula Vogel's Indecent, directed by Rebecca Taichman, at the Vineyard Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Recently, New York audiences have been rediscovering some long-overlooked, landmark works of the stage. Broadway's Shuffle Along, currently running at the Music Box Theatre, takes a fascinating look at the first all-black musical to be produced on Broadway back in 1921. Farther downtown, Paula Vogel's new work, Indecent, running at the Vineyard Theatre in association with La Jolla Playhouse and Yale Repertory Theatre, re-creates the making of Sholem Asch's 1906 Yiddish play The God of Vengeance. The incendiary drama shocked Broadway audiences and offended the censors in 1923 with its explicit depiction of a lesbian relationship.

Vogel's metatheatrical exploration of The God of Vengeance traces its history from the play's first reading to its Broadway premiere and, later, its relegation to the forgotten files. Lemml (Richard Topol), a stage manager, narrates the action. "We have a story we want to tell you," he says. "About a play. A play that changed my life." We soon learn that at the heart of The God of Vengeance's then-controversial plot is a father and brothel owner named Yankl whose daughter falls in love with one of his prostitutes.

This was heady stuff in early 20th-century America. Along with Lemml, there is the passionate, surprisingly forward-thinking acting troupe (all are referred to merely as "Actor" in the program) who steadfastly refuse to remove the production's crucial lesbian love scene when the public and censors demand it.

Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson portray, among other characters, Dorothee and Virginia, the two actresses whose infamous onstage kiss brings The God of Vengeance acclaim and infamy. The troupe has extraordinary success with the play for many years in Europe, but at the 1923 Broadway opening, the actors and producer are arrested for obscenity and later put on trial. Meanwhile, a disaffected Asch (Max Gordon Moore) sequesters himself at home on Staten Island to write Yiddish novels in solitude. Years after the trial, the actors leave America and go on to perform the play again in Europe, eventually winding up in a Polish ghetto during the German occupation. It is not long before they find themselves subjected to the horrors of the Nazi regime.

Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman tell this important and at times harrowing story through Lemml's haunting recollections. Taichman's ghostly characters rise from the ashes attired in drab-colored clothes of yesteryear (costumes by Emily Rebholz) in the evocative first scene. "Every night we tell this story, but somehow I can never remember the end," says Lemml prophetically. It's an ominous beginning to a drama that often erupts with delightful musical moments. Band members Mike Cohen, Lisa Gutkin, and Aaron Halva accompany the action with klezmer-style songs and interludes that get the actors singing and dancing onstage (choreography by David Dorfman) on Riccardo Hernandez's simple square-platform set. Surrounded by ever-present suitcases, the space reflects how, for these actors, the stage was indeed their entire life.

Indecent features inspired, presumably fictionalized moments of theater history. Eugene O'Neill (performed with real gusto by Moore) makes a brief appearance as a staunch advocate for God of Vengeance. Moore, Mimi Lieber, Tom Nelis, and Steven Rattazzi (along with Lenk, and Moore, and Verson) contribute to Indecent's large roster of characters, each taking on six or seven roles. The play's reach across the decades necessitates this many characters, but as scenes shift quickly through time and place it's often difficult to tell who is who.

That hurdle, combined with the directorial choices around those moments, mitigates Indecent's raw power. Tal Yarden's projections include frequent supertitles to indicate scene locales, "blinks in time," and languages spoken by the characters (Yiddish, English, and German). Awkward staging techniques, such as Lemml walking around the stage in slow-motion to indicate the passage of time, and the perplexing final rain scene (a literal onstage deluge), also constantly remind the audience that this is theater, making it difficult to connect with these once supposedly real people. The history behind Asch's seminal work is fascinating enough without calling attention away from the story with special effects.

Nevertheless, Indecent ranks as a must-see for anyone who cares about the important legacy of Yiddish theater, or of theater in general. It doesn't shock the way The God of Vengeance did a century ago, but we are indebted to Vogel and Taichman for reminding us of a brave play that fearlessly told the world there's nothing indecent about love.

Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk star in Indecent at the Vineyard Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)