Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of The God of Vengeance; Sholem Asch’s controversial play, originally written in Yiddish in 1906, had only a blink-and-you-missed-it Broadway run nearly 100 years ago that ended with the cast and producer being arrested for obscenity. Now, playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman are back with Vengeance — the story behind it, anyway — in their presentational play-within-a-play Indecent at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre.
Some audience members might bristle at the let’s-put-on-a-show trope. But stage manager Lemml (the ever-genial Richard Topol), our narrator/guide, is so genuine, the Klezmer music is so rousing, and Taichman’s trademark minimalist staging — what she does with a handful of ashes! — is so mesmerizing that it’s easy to take a trip back to Asch’s home in 1906 Warsaw. And when we first hear Asch (Max Gordon Moore) reading snippets of his dialogue, it’s clear what’s so captivating about his play: “You smell like grass in the meadows.” “Teach me. Take me.” “I can’t breathe.” It’s also clear why Asch is headed for trouble — those lines are spoken by two women, one of whom is a prostitute. (There’s also the small matter of a Torah that gets tossed to the ground in a moment of fury.) “You are pouring petrol on the flames of anti-Semitism,” the learned Perutz (Tom Nelis) tells the playwright. “Listen to me: About your manuscript? — BURN IT.”
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Of course, Asch does not set his work aflame. He takes it to Berlin, St. Petersburg, Bratislava, then New York City — where, once it’s translated into English, the trouble begins. (It’s also where, weirdly, Eugene O’Neill pops up as a character.) Along the way, thankfully, we’re afforded snippets of Asch’s play, including the much-ballyhooed “rain scene” between young lovers Rifkele (Katrina Lenk) and Manke (Adina Verson). In English, the scene is powerful and potent. In Yiddish, it’s simply breathtaking. B+