At one point in Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel’s long overdue Broadway debut, Indecent, a Polish Jew arrives on Ellis Island. It’s 1920, and the man marvels at how easily he is granted entry into the United States, while other would-be immigrants are turned back, despite pleas and tears. He has an old friend from home to thank: a writer, also Jewish, who is bringing a work of Yiddish theater to New York after successful runs in Europe, including Russia.
The scene, so evocative of historical ironies and enduring injustices that it’s almost painful to watch, is informed by a true story, that of another play: Sholem Asch’s seminal and controversial God of Vengeance, written in 1906. Vogel and co-creator Rebecca Taichman make the journey from there to the mid-20th century vividly theatrical and overtly political, suggesting other artists from that period — Bertolt Brecht, especially — while appealing to a world famished, once again, for tolerance and compassion.
For the uninitiated, Vengeance follows a Jewish patriarch who runs a brothel beneath the family home while striving to preserve an image as a faithful, virtuous man, prizing his expensive Torah scroll and his daughter’s virginity. But the daughter falls for one of his prostitutes, and the women declare their mutual love, memorably, kissing in the rain. Dad doesn’t take it well.
As Asch’s wife describes Vengeance early in Indecent, “It’s all in there. The roots of all evil: the money, the subjugation of women, the false piety.” Others who see the script worry that the same elements — not to mention a staged lesbian romance — will inflame they bigotry they already face. Vogel’s own concerns are not limited to anti-Semitism, or homophobia. The larger focus of Indecent, and it couldn’t be a timelier one, is the plight of the outsider or other, of anyone whose identity can be twisted into an easy target under tough circumstances. That includes artists, particularly those who embrace risk and ponder responsibility; Asch, played (in young adulthood and middle age) with great sensitivity and controlled urgency by Max Gordon Greene, is their representative.
That’s not to say the characters or predicaments seem in any way generic. Indecent is a play with music, and the production nods to Yiddish and epic theater, using deliberately self-conscious staging and direct calls to our social and moral conscience. Aside from Richard Topol, who movingly portrays Vengeance’s loyal stage manager, Lemml — the man Asch meets on Ellis Island — the cast members all juggle various roles, as a troupe of actors carries Vengeance through changing times. We witness both the premiere in Berlin and, not four decades later, a makeshift production in the Polish ghetto of Lodz, where literally starving artists cower in constant fear of being discovered.
Supertitles are prominent throughout Indecent, in English and Yiddish, highlighting the heritage and struggles that bond the troupe. Original and traditional songs and instrumentals, played onstage by musicians who are part of the company, offer bittersweet strains of klezmer, which like the blues reflects both the suffering and the resilience of a long-oppressed group of people.
Conflicts within the Jewish community also continue to surface. When, after arriving on Broadway in 1923, the cast and producer of Vengeance are indicted for obscenity — even after the producer cuts the love scene between the prostitute and the ingénue — the Irish cop who arrests them transforms before our eyes into a rabbi. Trading his police uniform for a tallit and his hat for a yarmulke, he launches into a sermon praising the arrest, and stoking fears similar to those expressed back in Poland.
Violent and ominous activity abroad increasingly weighs on Asch, who is shaken after visiting the sites of pogroms in the early ‘20s, and Greene makes his internal strife achingly plain. But he and the rest of Indecent’s excellent ensemble — featuring a luminous Katrina Lenk, who brings crackling mischief to the actress playing the prostitute, and Adina Verson, warm and sly in roles including that actress’s lover on and offstage — also convey an exuberance and a sense of purpose, reminding us that art can motivate, agitate and uplift. In our own troubled century, there’s at least some encouragement to be found there. A-