by Tulis McCall
“It’s the 20th century. We are all attracted to both sexes.” Says Adje Asch (Adina Verson) to her husband, the author Sholem Asch (Max Gordon Moore). It is 1906 and it is Warsaw and this is news to me. Which is kind of the point of Indecent, the new Paula Vogel play now at The Vineyard Theatre. This is an immaculate production directed by Rebecca Taichman, and within the first few second of the play you find yourself relaxing and remembering, “this is why I go to the theatre.”
Indecent is a play within a play. In 1906 Asch wrote God Of Vengance that was a story about a couple who owned a brothel that occupied their basement. When the brothel comes to their door in the form of one of the women Manke (Ms. Verson) who is intimate with their daughter Rifkele ( Katrina Lenk), all Hell breaks loose. The Hell in this instance take the form of the Torah the father Yekel (Tom Nelis) bought as a dowry for his daughter. Think of Moses tossing the newly minted Ten Commandments at the Jews who had gone nutty while he was on the Mount chatting with God. That is kind of how dad reacts, throwing the torah (that cost all the whores in the basement) to the ground, thereby desecrating it. As Indecent proceeds we see this final scene played over and over again as the company tours through every major European city.
In 1920 they arrive in New York and become successful as part of the Yiddish theatre on the Lower East Side. When the producer Harry Weinberger (Steven Rattazzi) decides to mount the play in English at the Provincetown Playhouse – everything changes. First of all he decides to cut the love scene between the two women – and I could not imagine how that would be done. There is some rumbling, but it is not until the show moved uptown to the then Apollo Theatre that Hell broke loose. The cast and producer were arrested for indecency. Although they were later acquitted, by the time the story arrives at this juncture we have become invested in these actors and the characters they are giving to us.
In creating the story within the story Taichman and Vogel use technical touches that at first seem clumsy but turn out to be little gems. There are sections labeled “a blink in time” that are like tiny hiccups or record skips that move the action ahead just the right amount. In addition there is a lovely construct of the language. When they are speaking Yiddish they have no accent. When they are speaking English (learning to do so for their play) they have a stilted accent. And then there are the two musicians Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva who weave in and out of the play both as characters and musicians.
The play does not end with the trial, but rather with a “new” cast of characters presenting the play in the Lodz Ghetto in 1943 where we, the audience, finally get to see that love scene that sent everyone ass-over-teakettle. Two women in the rain discovering each other with such sweetness it is nearly embarrassing to watch. Asch ends up living in Bridgeport (of all places) Connecticut where in 1952 he received and invitation from the House on Unamerican Activities that he seems to have ignored.
We are left with a vision of the two women that seems to say, no matter the difficulty, no matter the shame that is thrown at us, no matter any of that. We exist and we always will.
This is a compelling piece of theatre that does more than tell a story. It offers its heart on its sleeve and asks for a piece of yours. Before you know it, the exchange is made and you are left richer and a bit haunted. You are not quite the same person you were when you arrived. Brava.
Credits Written by Paula Vogel; Created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman
Cast Featuring Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Richard Topol and Adina Verson
Music by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva; Choreography by David Dorfman; Directed by Rebecca Taichman