Nowadays, opening nights on Broadway are cheery affairs where investors and friends come together to celebrate a show before the reviews come out and the show’s financial future becomes apparent (for better or worse). But on opening night in 1923 of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance (which featured the first kiss between two women on a Broadway stage), the cast and producer were arrested on charges of obscenity.
Almost a century later, this controversial Jewish melodrama (originally written in Yiddish) is back on Broadway – well, sort of. Indecent, Paula Vogel’s tragic and poignant exploration of the play’s international production history during the first half of the 20th century, has transferred to Broadway after premiering roughly a year ago Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre. (Vogel, a Pulitzer-winning playwright with a long body of work that includes How I Learned to Drive and The Baltimore Waltz, is making her long-delayed Broadway debut.)
No doubt inspired by the success of Indecent, God of Vengeance recently received an Off-Off-Broadway revival in Yiddish. Although the heyday of Yiddish theater on Second Avenue in the early 20th century is long gone, plays are still performed in Yiddish in New York by the Folksbiene (National Yiddish Theatre) and New Yiddish Rep. Recent productions include a long-lost Yiddish operetta and a Yiddish translation of Death of a Salesman.
God of Vengeance (which is seen in bits and pieces throughout Indecent) revolves around a Jewish brothel owner whose teenage daughter (who he intended to marry to a clean-cut Yeshiva student) becomes sexually involved with one of his prostitutes. In the highly charged ending, he hurls a Torah at his daughter. While the play is over the top by today’s standards, it is fascinating from a historical and cultural perspective.
Vogel takes us from the play’s genesis in 1906 Warsaw (where it is condemned for Asch’s critical view of religion) to its various New York productions (both in Yiddish and English), to a ghetto attic in Nazi Europe, where it is being secretly performed. With each new incarnation, people bond and fight over the play. Director Rebecca Taichman (best known for directing various plays by Sarah Ruhl) embraces the play’s inherent theatricality, with a three-member Klezmer band, stylized movement and supertitles to point out dates, names, locations and other period details. Taken together with the storytelling, the visual displays can be exquisitely beautiful.
A familiarity with God of Vengeance (which recently received an Off-Off-Broadway revival in Yiddish) is helpful but not essential to appreciating Indecent. At its core, Indecent is the story of Lemml (sensitively played by Richard Topol), a provincial tailor who turns into the play’s stage manager and chief guardian. Lemml is not unlike a diehard Star Wars fanatic who has become so obsessed with the films that he claims to understand them better than George Lucas.