Paula Vogel’s Indecent uses the production history of a little-known Yiddish play to get at haunting truths about the paradoxical nature of storytelling. In the world of Indecent, theater is both ephemeral and eternal, a thing we struggle to grasp while always holding the experience of it in our hearts.
Now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, in a production co-produced by Center Theatre Group and the Huntington Theatre Company, Indecent lifts Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance out of the past, from its first reading in Poland to its robust touring life in Europe through a 1923 obscenity trial over the first kiss between two women on an American stage.
The ensemble members cycle through different versions of their character archetypes, as we see the play-within-a-play carried through its numerous lives, ending with its frequent revival in European ghettos during World War II. All this is strung together through musical interludes that are by turns amusing, melancholy, and evocative. Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman creates a strong sense of time and place with only a few spare instruments and an affecting score from Lisa Gutkin (who also plays the violin on stage).
Both Vogel and Taichman have held a lengthy obsession with Asch’s play, encountering it at university. It seems almost kismet that they found each other and collaborated to restore this groundbreaking work to its much-deserved place in theater history. But what’s even more remarkable is the seamlessness of the entire company’s work: It is skillfully written and directed, but then it is taken up with such intricate precision by the cast that it feels more like a living, breathing piece of history than a theatrical sum of its parts.
The cast transitions flawlessly between a dizzying array of roles, never leaving the stage but simply adjusting their stance or adding a pair of glasses or a headscarf to help us differentiate. They flit from perfectly enunciated dialogue (meant to be in a foreign language) to the more broken dialect of those learning English as a second language with whip-crack exactitude. And in the midst of all this artful acting technique, they never lose sight of the painstaking humanity at the heart of each of the roles they bring to life.
The company is a blend of newcomers and original Broadway cast members, but they all feel as effortlessly a part of one constantly evolving troupe as if they had been together since day one. Two of the newcomers are exceptionally mesmerizing. As Sholem Asch, Joby Earle deftly moves from upstart revolutionary playwright determined to change the world to a man jaded by the atrocities against his people. And he also gets a delightful diversion as a drunken, cynical Eugene O’Neill that feels as if he stepped from the pages of the playwright’s biography. Elizabeth A. Davis is effectively mysterious and intoxicating as the various actresses who portray Menke in God of Vengeance, bringing with her a femme fatale energy that masks a deeper vulnerability that breaks through in quietly effective moments.
Returning cast members Adina Verson and Richard Topol have only grown richer in their time with the project. Verson cycles through numerous actresses who portray Rifkele, as well as anchoring the emotional core of the play as Asch’s wife, Madje. She expertly blends her characters’ fresh-faced innocence with a calming, grounded energy that makes her a life raft in the swirling mix of humanity on the stage.
Topol has perhaps the most essential role in an ensemble that demands much of every player. He is the only invented character in the proceedings, Lemml, the stage manager whose life was changed by the words of Asch. Much like the stage manager in Our Town, he is our narrator, bringing the troupe back to life at the play’s start. But he is also something much richer — a symbol for the religion, the way of life, the culture, and the people that the Holocaust (and pogroms before it) sought to wipe out.
He’s a beacon for the enduring power of art. Lemml is the constant as everything around him changes, dedicating his life to telling this story again and again in many forms simply because he believes in the purity of its message: the beauty of two human beings, two women, in love. Topol has much to carry given this, but he wears it like a favorite coat, giving a performance that is so lived-in, so startlingly specific, he can’t help but break your heart in the play’s crushing, then restorative final moments.
Taichman and Vogel have crafted a play for the ages, one that is about the power of the very thing they’ve created. Indecent is a theatrical ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail, as it gives us pieces of the actual script of God of Vengeance while simultaneously telling the tale of the play’s existence in a way that celebrates its groundbreaking love story, while exploding it out to a more profound examination of how storytelling can be our light in the darkest of times.
All this is buoyed by the play’s design and structure, which hurl you into the amorphous black box of the stage to allow you to live within the ephemeral promise of its power for a little under two hours. A promise that feels like holding a breath until you are finally given the hallowed rain scene, the God of Vengeance love scene spoken of reverently throughout the play’s action — and when it actually rains on stage in a stolen moment of joy, it’s a redemptive exhalation for every member of the audience.
With its questions of obscenity in storytelling and its themes of xenophobia and homophobia, Indecent has just as much to say about our world today as it does about the one its set in, without ever needing to hit you over the head with that notion. It’s a fierce ensemble piece that celebrates the life-altering, life-saving power of the theater — a play that uses its actors and some old-fashioned stage magic to crush you with the horrors of our world before lifting you up and washing you clean with theater’s transcendent ability to tell our most essential stories, while rewriting our endings again and again. A