Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson in INDECENT. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

By Michael Hillyer

Indecent, Paula Vogel’s beautiful and emotionally shattering new play at the Cort Theatre, is a play about another play. That play in question is Sholem Asch’s 1907 God Of Vengeance, written in Yiddish in Warsaw and first produced in Berlin in 1910, which tells the story of a Jewish brothel owner who condemns his own child to a life of prostitution after discovering her in an affair with another woman. The subject of a famous scandal a century ago, when it ran aground on the rocks of that time’s prohibitive obscenity laws, God Of Vengeance was produced successfully all over Europe, in a variety of languages, before its arrival in New York in the early 1920s. It was performed for the first time in English at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village before moving to Broadway’s Apollo Theatre on W. 42nd Street, where it closed abruptly after six weeks. Not in the usual way, by the producer posting a closing notice, but by the local authorities, who were shocked at the subject matter and had the cast and theatre owner summarily thrown into jail and brought to trial on charges of obscenity — even though the Apollo production no longer contained the offending “lesbian” scene between the two girls.

A collaborative effort between Ms. Vogel and the director, Rebecca Taichman, Indecent is a transfer from its successful Off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre last season. Using overtly Brechtian stagecraft devices, such as subtitles defining time and location projected onto an upstage curtain, and actors directly addressing the audience to move the narrative along, it is hard to discern where the writing leaves off and the directing begins, and the enormous credit for that must go to Ms. Taichman.

Quite apart from its place in dramatic history (it is the first play ever to contain a lesbian courtship scene), the astonishing thing about God Of Vengeance is how straight its author wrote that scene, in language so direct and simple and prosaic, that it could have been written for any everyday Romeo and Juliet. There is no attempt to sensationalize or coarsen the sexual context: as it is performed by Indecent’s protean acting troupe, as a leitmotif repeating several times over the course of the evening, the scene becomes more beautiful and fully realized each time it is done. Its final depiction, at the end of the play, is also its most complete one. An actual onstage rainstorm unexpectedly showers the two girls as they play uninhibitedly within it, drenching them in an ocean of cascading water and drawing them close together for warmth, united in desire and in wetness, filled with wild, unforeseen possibility. It is a stunning coup de theatre, a crescendo of powerful natural forces as old as time and as elemental as the rain itself.

As befits a play about a play, the conduit for everything is the theatre itself; the history of God Of Vengeance is told by the theatrical troupe performing it, from its first reading out loud (by a room full of men) in a Warsaw literary salon, through a number of successful productions in major European cities, until its fateful arrival in New York. Paula Vogel also interweaves themes of Jewish immigration that echo strongly with more recent images and events, as immigrants are rejected and sent back from the long lines at Ellis Island waiting to get into America. When they recreate that long line later on in the narrative, the troupe’s actors are wearing Stars of David sewn onto their clothing, as they wait to enter into the concentration camps. Yes. There is a whole lot going on here. The powerful emotional impact of moments like these in Indecent cannot be understated, and there are times, late in the play, where sobs in the audience are almost loud enough to drown out what is happening onstage.

Proudly Jewish and self-consciously theatrical, and I mean that in the best way, Indecent is performed pretty much on a bare stage, though there is a raised central playing area defined by a mock proscenium arch upstage. The offstage wings and backstage area are completely exposed to view, clear back to the brick. Props like suitcases and the barest set pieces propel the action along, through many locales and over the course of many years. Mss. Vogel and Taichman work their transporting magic in plain sight and without any apparent help from a big Broadway budget, relying instead upon their own imaginative sense of stagecraft, an excellent company of actors and a resourceful design team. To paraphrase the playwright Lope de Vega, and to offer this riveting production the highest compliment of the theatre, Indecent is pretty much just three boards, two actors, and one magnificent, transcendent passion.

INDECENT: a play in one act by Paula Vogel and created by Vogel and Rebecca Taichman. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Choreography by David Dorfman. Sets, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Matt Hubbs; projections, Tal Yarden; composers & music directors, Lisa Gutkin & Aaron Halva; production stage manager, Terri K. Kohler. Presented by Daryl Roth, Elizabeth I. McCann, Cody Lassen, Jerry Meyer, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Elizabeth Armstrong, Julie Boardman, CoGro Partners, Nicole Eisenberg, Four Star Productions, GLS Productions, The John Gore Organization, Kathleen K. Johnson, Dana M. Lerner, Jenn Maley, Mano-Horn Productions, Marc Platt, Storyboard Entertainment in association with Yale Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse and Vineyard Theatre.

With: Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Richard Topol, Adina Verson, Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva.

Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street. 212-239-6200. Running time: One Hour, 45 Min. with no intermission.