By Eugene Paul
1910, when Sholem Asch was 50 years old, he scandalized the world of the Jewish
Theatre with God of Vengeance, his play about the Jewish owner of a
brothel, his wife, an ex-prostitute, seeking to gain respectability through the
marriage of their carefully sheltered, innocent daughter to a rabbi’s son of
equal innocence. In celebration, he has commissioned his own copy of the
Torah, the most sacred of texts, to be used in the wedding ceremony. When he
discovers his daughter has fallen in love with one of his prostitutes, he
desecrates the sacred scrolls, and forces his daughter to work as a whore in
who wrote in Yiddish, was happy to allow his play to be translated in all the
principal languages of Europe, shocking and enthralling audiences in all those
tongues. Even English. But it was only in New York, in 1923, that he, his
producer and the entire company were arrested and the play forced to close. Not
for blasphemy. For obscenity. In the play, the brothel owner’s daughter and
her lover prostitute presented the first lesbian love scene ever staged. What
was a resounding success in Europe was banned in the U.S.A. But not for about
six weeks. Hypocrisy is ever flexible. Which was a longer run than Mae West
got with her happy scandalous play trifle, ”Sex”. And about as good as George
Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, but then, neither of them enjoyed
being the first to show lesbian lovers on the stage.
is extraordinary that in these strained times, with values challenged
leadership attempting to direct the fortunes of all Americans, that prize
winning playwright Paula Vogel and her gifted director Rebecca Taichman have
taken these shocking, brutal elements and created the haunting, spellbinding Indecent,
built around Asch’s masterpiece, evoking a work of such tender beauty and
resonance it will stay with you in your conversations, your sleeping hours,
your psyche for a long time to come. From the moment the obscure, gray company
of Yiddish theatre players that went back to Europe and to death rises out of
the dust –of their graves? – of history? – we are transported. They are so
full of a love for life, their hardscrabble life as traveling players.
are going to play God of Vengeance. A young, Sholem Asch –artistic
license – (intense Max Gordon Moore) has written an exciting first play, and a
shy, idealistic dreamer (wonderful Richard Topol) is going to act as their
producer when the business savvy Yiddish Theater managers back away from the
would be futile to try to put in mere words all the wonders and spells that
director Taichman achieves with her enchanted, enchanting company in apparently
spontaneous invention, dancing and song interwoven with Asch’s life, interwoven
with the characters of their play, Riccardo Hernandez’s setting becoming
everywhere you need to be, they need to be, their terrible, portentous
suitcases, now tables, now chairs, now whatever they wish, Emily Rebholz’s
costumes, whisking you into the play within the play, making you a
concentration camp victim, whirling you from one time frame to another in
choreographer David Dorfman’s magical change moments, the past and the present
and the future all one, every scene to the next with the swiftest and most
comfortable of changes before your eyes, everyone being everyone else. And you.
Christopher Akerlind’s lighting creating instant place, instant focus.
a company that can do anything. Mimi Lieber, one moment a grande dame of the
Yiddish stage, the next, the too wise Mama in the brothel, in an instant a
concentration camp bound creature, the next, free at last at Ellis Island,
wonderstruck. Tom Nelis, is there anybody who can sing and dance and rage and
cajole and entwine and love and berate and demand with such command, such
presence? Katrina Lenk , instantly, luminously compelling your undivided
attention, every gesture alluring, all the pain, all the sad experiences, and
the divine grace, when her simplest gesture takes over as everyone moves from
one place, one time to another, when they are scattered, when they are one.
Adina Verson, now Asch’s adoring wife, now purest innocence, the brothel
owner’s daughter, lover of Katrina Lenk’s melting, enchanting prostitute, their
love scene so tender so beautiful , so not obscene. Steven Ratazzi, sturdy
trouper in all his beings.
among them all, the eager, earnest, ragtag musicians, Lisa Gutkin,
Darriau, Aaron Halva, sparking the spontaneous dances, soothing the weary
travelers, their music crying the tears they don’t have the time to shed. They
touch our humanity. The show touches our humanity. What’s that worth?
the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street. Tickets:$39-$129.
212-239-6200. 1hr, 45 min. Open run.