“This was the moment for me, when it all started.” The two women clasp each other’s necks, circling one another with locked eyes, drawing closer and closer until …
“Indecent,” a play created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, tells “the extraordinary true story of a little Jewish play” — namely, “The God of Vengeance” by Sholem Asch — and follows its journey from a faltering first reading at a literary salon in Warsaw to European acclaim and finally the Broadway stage.
This is a play that will not fail to captivate you from the moment the curtain rises. As the actors join in a dreamlike dance, we meet each as a generic caricature, whose identity can be reinvented freely in a stream of new guises as the show progresses. The life and times of Sholem Asch and his colleagues and companions unfurl before us on their quest to bring Jewish works to an international audience for the first time. Identity — in racial, sexual and artistic terms — lies at the heart of “Indecent.”
The seamless transitions between Yiddish and English dialogue, subtitled by projection, create an astonishing commentary on familiar problems of immigration and America’s insular social structures. In a particularly striking scene, the conniving New York producer uses his legal dominance over the actors to excise the most human moments of tenderness in the play for its lesbian themes. Such actions speak to oppressive cultural norms founded in the commercial hegemony of Western capitalism that continue to marginalize minority groups of all kinds to this day. “Indecent” is as much a play about America and theatre in the present as it is about the plight of the Jewish people throughout the 20th century — and above all, it illustrates magnificently how these two truths intersect.
“Indecent” was not without its few faults, of course. The fact that the play’s most powerful and beautifully staged scenes were found in reenacted excerpts taken from Sholem Asch’s original play will make you wish you could just watch “The God of Vengeance” in its entirety instead. As each episode of the story emerges with yet another impeccably choreographed and stylized scene of dance, song or projected text upon the walls of the University Theater, the crux that makes this play most compelling begins to feel somewhat obscured. The inevitable theatricality of a play portraying the history of another play’s production requires no small amount of focus on the part of the viewer, in order to track the various characters portrayed by each actor through the passing years. All this said, Vogel’s adaptation and contextualization is undeniably invaluable, for the many rich layers of meaning it builds upon its source foundations.