Sholem Asch’s Yiddish play God of Vengeance, about a Jewish brothel owner’s daughter who falls in love with a prostitute, played throughout Europe and in New York’s Yiddish theaters in the early 20th century. The celebrated actor Rudolph Schildkraut, among others, appeared in the key role of the father who tries to buy his way into God’s and his town’s good graces. But when an English translation finally opened on Broadway in 1923, city authorities shut it down, arresting the cast and producer on obscenity charges. Paula Vogel’s incisive and inventive new play Indecent recounts the fascinating history of God of Vengeance and how it illuminates the story of European and American Jewry through the first half of the 20th century.
It isn’t necessary to read God of Vengeance or to have seen, as I did, the recent revival by the New Yiddish Rep (in Yiddish with English supertitles) to appreciate the new Broadway production’s eccentric but powerful storytelling, or the masterful performances by the cast of seven actors and three on-stage musicians. As one character opines, with a sense of the deep if not the literal truth, that the authorities shut down that Broadway production not because of the sexual content or the lesbian relationship but because the play showed that every religion is willing to sell God.
God of Vengeance was and is a play about the human heart, and only secondarily about a particular, seedy corner of a particular culture at a particular place and time. Indecent, despite the title, is not primarily about what a society does and does not deem “decent” and acceptable, but about the human heart writ large, over the expanse of a whole people and over time, and for good and ill. As one character says when God of Vengeance is being shut down, “They’re gonna claim they’re closing it because of homo sexualis. That’s bunk. They’re closing it because the play shows that every religion – even Jews – sell God for a price.”
Cynicism aside, Vogel and director and co-creator Rebecca Taichman treat us to an array of glimpses of individual stories that illuminate the humane side of humanity. First there was the smashing European success of Asch’s youthful play, and more important, its message of love carrying the day against any perceived licentiousness. As Asch himself recounted, “As to the scenes between Manka and Rifkele, on every European stage, especially the Russian, they were the most poetic of all, and the critics of those countries appreciated this poetic view.”
We also see the lasting relationship between Asch and his wife Majda; the tender, loyal heart of the stage manager Lemml, heartbreakingly portrayed by Richard Topol; the micro-dramas of casting, and the no-win frustrations of censorship; and the embittering of Asch’s soul after a fact-finding tour of postwar Europe. All these shoots and more spring from the play’s ashy yet fertile ground, blossoming amid a production of mostly sombre colors and an extremely minimal set, showing us one unique and strangely representative facet of the infinitely complex tale of the Jews of Europe and their migration to America.
Secondarily, but importantly, Indecent as a drama is about the essential stuff of society and of theater alike: language. Except for a few moments, the play is in English. But it keeps us informed of when the characters are really speaking Yiddish. The actors are thoroughly convincing at halting, accented speech when it’s called for. Max Gordon Moore, who plays Asch from youth to the brink of old age, even becomes another playwright of a very different background in one droll but message-heavy scene. The unbrokenly strong company includes Katrina Lenk (Once), Adina Verson, and a crazily versatile Steven Rattazzi in multiple roles; the two women are especially fine as stars of the play-within-the-play, Rattazzi equally good as a naysaying rabbi among other parts.
All this, while highly stylized, is a true story, woven with darkly iridescent threads into a production that delicately balances the lighthearted and the deeply moving – and stops just shy of the maudlin towards the end. Ethnic-style music and period popular songs transition us from scene to scene, quickened by David Dorfman’s lively, serpentine choreography.
Indecent is at Broadway’s Cort Theatre.