by JK Clarke
In an allusion, perhaps, to the story of Exodus and the 40 years that Moses led his people through the desert to freedom, Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel’s Indecent (making its Broadway debut at the Cort Theatre) opens with a solemn scene in which suitcase-toting Jews silently spill large volumes of sand from their sleeves. The act, repeated at the end of the production, takes on new, even more tortured meaning. But it all comes to the same: we are all from dust and shall return thence. So one may conclude, especially considering the material, what difference does it make what we do while we’re here? Is it not enough merely to love?
Directed and co-created by Rebecca Taichman, Indecent is the story of the awful consequences of censorship. The play follows the production history of Sholem Asch’s groundbreaking 1907 God of Vengeance and its eventual appearance (albeit wrongfully altered and edited) on Broadway which led to the indictment and eventual conviction of the entire cast on obscenity charges. Originally written in Yiddish in Poland and performed successfully in St. Petersburg, Berlin and other European capitols, God of Vengeance (which was produced in the original Yiddish this past December at La Mama—see Theater Pizzazz’s review here) is the story of an orthodox family who run a brothel in their basement. Though of questionable morality, the father’s goal is to raise enough money to marry his teenaged daughter to a man from a respectable family. Instead, she and one of the prostitutes fall in love. Their budding relationship and a famous, beautiful scene in which they share their first kiss in a rainstorm was not only the first portrayal of lesbian love on a contemporary western stage (in 1907, no less!), but rivals any of the great love scenes in theatrical history.
While God of Vengeance enjoyed critical success in Europe and in translation on American stages—first at the Provincetown Playhouse, then “uptown” in Greenwich Village—its appearance in front of conservative, gentile audiences on Broadway led to accusations of obscenity . . . some 16 years after its first production. Up until this point it had only casually raised eyebrows and was viewed merely as a love story, without the heavy taint of homophobia. It took America’s Puritan ethos to label it obscene.
The task of creating a cohesive play about the making of a play (which seems to be something of a recent trend, as evidenced by last year’s hit musical Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed) is no small undertaking, yet Vogel and Taichman pull it off with aplomb. Vogel manages to stress the political issues without losing site of the love story at the core and while maintaining a sense of humor, and Taichman provides a smooth pathway (projections of the words “a blink in time” along with a frozen cast help fill time gaps smoothly and without confusion) for the story; but it’s the cast and music team that really make Indecent magical.
While Vogel’s story takes on Shakespearean proportions in its tragic depth, there is a fluidity and grace that moves through the production that practically contradicts the impending doom. David Dorfman’s choreography seems even to invade ordinary movement (like crossing the stage); and coupled with the breathtaking Katrina Lenk’s ability to fill a scene with her presence, it’s no small wonder that innocent, young Rifkele (beautifully played by Broadway newcomer Adina Verson) falls head over heels for Manke as they dance in white nightgowns in the downpour.
There are strong performances throughout the cast, from Richard Topol as the earnest stage manager Lemml to a noble Tom Nelis, who like all others plays a multitude of roles. Even the musicians, who play a slightly more involved role (notably, the charming accordionist Aaron Halva) in the play, add to the merriment of the production as it hits its high notes. Which is likely one of the primary reasons, coupled with the tale of a denial of innocent love, why we feel so painfully for the actors when it all goes downhill. Indecent is very much the story of an American tragedy, we are reminded. One in which we are not only complicit, but also collateral damage.
Indecent. Through September 10 at the Cort Theatre (138 West 48th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). Run time: one hour, 45 minutes; no intermission. www.indecentbroadway.com
Photos: Carol Rosegg