Playwright Paula Vogel fell in love with Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance during her graduate studies at Cornell. The torch she carried for the seminal Yiddish drama morphed into Indecent, a reverent examination of its creation and controversy, now having its local premiere at the Arden through June 23.
Vogel’s devotion to Asch’s work, which in its time was notable for its frank depiction of lesbianism and prostitution, occasionally verges on hagiography. Listen to the opening salvo spoken by Lemml (Doug Hara), the de facto narrator, a stage manager who shepherded the show from its Polish premiere onward: “We have a story we want to tell you … about a play. A play that changed my life.” Upon reading the first draft, Asch’s wife (a too-contemporary Michaela Schuchman) effuses that it contains every facet of human existence. That might as well be Vogel speaking through her characters.
Indecent dramatizes the entire lifespan of the work, from its birth in 1906 Warsaw to its performance, as an act of defiance, in the Łódź ghetto during Nazi occupation. But the action mostly centers on a 1923 Broadway production featuring the renowned Yiddish actor Rudolph Schildkraut (an oddly muted David Ingram), during which the entire cast was arrested and convicted on charges of moral turpitude. Hence the title.
This should make for an interesting dive into theatrical history, but Vogel too often descends into “and-then-this-happened” storytelling. More to the point, she seems unsure which story she wants to tell. When God of Vengeance moved from the Bowery to Broadway, its producer cut the script drastically; Nearly all same-sex content was excised. Yet the play doesn’t sufficiently explore what exactly made the proceedings “indecent.” Was it the mere suggestion of gay attraction, the critical eye cast toward religion, or the whiff of immigrant menace that offended assimilationist senses?
Instead, the intermission-free two hours frequently resemble a museum exhibit — complete with projections (designed by Jorge Cousineau) that painstakingly explain the events of each scene — or worse, a dry lecture. Vogel also leans a bit too heavily on hoary tropes, like having foreign characters speak with perfect unaccented clarity to each other, then slip into comically oversized accents when switching to “English.”
A top-notch production might have mitigated these deficits. The Arden certainly delivers on a technical level. Scenic designer David P. Gordon transforms the F. Otto Haas Stage into a gray-walled, decaying theatrical temple, which Maria Shaplin lights in arresting sepia tones. Nikki Delhomme’s costumes evoke the glamour of the period, and original music (performed live by violinist Rachel Massey, clarinetist Jason Gresl, and accordionist Sarah Statler) hums with authentic klezmer flavor.
But while some individual performances stand out — Mary Elizabeth Scallen supplies welcome comic relief with a Frau Blücher accent and the best comic lines — director Rebecca Wright fails to make the ensemble seem like a well-established troupe. She also makes odd use of the playing area, placing many key scenes far upstage, and having her actors deliver a number of pivotal moments with their backs to the audience.
Surprisingly, Vogel largely elides the most transgressive element of her subject: that Asch portrayed carnal love between two women as something not only normal but also holy. By the time we get to see the moment depicted, it feels like an afterthought. Indecent tells its audience an important story, but it rarely shows us why.