The opening moments of “Indecent” are breathtaking.
As you enter the Cort Theatre, where this Yiddish-theater drama-within-a-drama opened tonight, the cast is waiting, sitting quietly in an upstage row of chairs, dressed in early-20th-century clothes, valises at their sides. When the play begins, they stand and make their way onto the raised stage in front of them. As their bodies move, dust streams from their sleeves. It is a lovely picture, moodily lit, that hints at a dusty tale out for another airing. “Every night we tell this story,” says Lemml (a stalwart Richard Topol), the stage manager of the play-within-the-play, and also our narrator. “But somehow I can never remember the end.” That’s what makes this beautiful moment also devastating: For these people, these turn-of-the-20th-century Polish Jews, the end was ashes.
It’s not the only haunting moment in this beautifully staged production. Indeed, this story about immigration and assimilation, ethnic pride and ethnic complexity, the burdens of making art and speaking truth and being stymied along the way — this story built around a Yiddish-language Polish-Jewish play written in 1907 — turns out to be an uncannily timely tale for the early days of the Trump era. It’s a decades-old story, retold in a in new play written in the Obama years, that’s remarkably well suited for today.
“Indecent” tells the true story of “God of Vengeance,” written by Sholem Asch 110 years ago, and of the Yiddish-theater troupe that performed it around the world. Asch’s play was shocking in its time — for depicting lesbianism, for, in its story about a pious man who earns his living running a brothel, suggesting all morals are for sale, for shande-fur-die-goyim-ly depicting Jews as just as complicated and imperfect as anyone else — but the history of the troupe is even more troubling. After triumphant engagements across Europe, the players came to America and again triumphed in New York, downtown. But when the play moved to Broadway, in 1923, translated and somewhat bowdlerized, it was shut down as obscene. To continue performing, the actors and musicians returned to Europe. They didn’t know that doing so would ensure their deaths. Neither did Rabbi Joseph Silverman, of New York’s chichi Temple Emanu-El, who was the one who called in the vice squad.
The playwright Paula Vogel, former chair of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama, first encountered “God of Vengeance” as a grad student at Cornell. Rebecca Taichman, a respected director, first read in grad school, too. In 2010, they started working together on what would become “Indecent. “(It’s credited as “created” by the pair, with a script by Vogel and direction by Taichman.) It opened a year ago off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre (after earlier runs at the La Jolla Playhouse and Yale Rep), when the mood in the country felt less dire than it does now and when the play felt accordingly just as lovely but less urgent. Re-opened on Broadway — it is, amazingly, the Broadway debut for both Vogel and Taichman — “Indecent” points to both the significance of “God of Vengeance” and to the tragedy surrounding its creation, success, and ultimate New York rejection. And that rejection is the rejection of the different, the minority, the embarrassing, the other.
Vogel’s script renders the story lyrically, switching between English and Yiddish, with translations projected on the upstage wall, and different accents conveying whether a performer is struggling in a foreign tongue or speaking normally in a familiar one. (It sounds complicated to understand; it works effortlessly.) The talented troupe plays all the characters, shifting roles in front of our eyes on that stage atop the stage. And we see their deep dedication to Asch’s play, a revelation in its time, so honest and emotional that, in an early scene, I.L. Peretz, the then-dean of Yiddish literature, advises him to burn it.
Even better is how Taichman’s elegant direction pairs with and augments Vogel’s script, creating images like that opening one and keeping the sad story moving inexorably forward. (The choreography is by David Dorfman, the scenic design by Ricardo Hernandez, and the lighting design by Christopher Akerlind.) There are musicians and music, singing and dancing, beauty and joy amid this very sad story.
It’s only the final time we see “God of Vengeance” staged, in an attic in the Lodz ghetto in 1943, that we finally see its most famous, and most controversial scene, the “rain scene” in which the two women kiss. It’s in English, with Yiddish titles, which means, by the production’s logic, that it was performed in Yiddish, the players’ native language. It’s a joyous moment, even in the ghetto, but that joy is soon enough destroyed. “The troupe returns to dust,” a projected title says.
Asch lived on, but he, too, was destroyed. In the play’s final moments he’s in Connecticut, crushed by what has happened to him, and to his play. He is a great writer — nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1946 — but he was never accepted by this country. He has received a letter from HUAC, and he’s set to move to London. He won’t engage with a young writer who has translated “God of Vengeance,” and he won’t permit it to be performed. It’s his own vengeance.
And then, finally, we see the rain scene once more: This time in Yiddish, this time in the rain. It’s a lost culture, a censored play, a destroyed author. But, in Vogel and Taichman’s hands, it lives on.
‘Indecent’ is currently running on Broadway at the Cort Theatre.
Jesse Oxfeld has written about theater for New York Magazine and Town & Country. Follow him on Twitter, @joxfeld