“Indecent” at Yale Repertory Theatre

By Brooks Appelbaum

First, let me get this straight. Regardless of the few criticisms you will read in the following paragraphs -- and in fact, before you read much further than where you are right now -- stop and secure your tickets for Yale Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of Indecent, written by Paula Vogel; created by Vogel and Rebecca Taichman; and masterfully directed by Taichman with David Dorman’s fluid, arresting choreography. Indecent blends fact and imagination to recreate the varied reception, the scandal, and the beauty of an older play, Sholem Asch’s 1907 The God of Vengeance, written in Yiddish, and performed throughout Eastern Europe and New York (in Yiddish and English), until a disastrous stint on Broadway buries the play for nearly fifteen years, and then for much longer. The remarkable theatricality and freewheeling scope of this production not only rescues the play from relative obscurity, but asks probing questions that Asch, at least at the time when he wrote The God of Vengeance, would relish.

However, Indecent is not concerned with presenting large sections of The God of Vengeance itself. Rather, Vogel and Taichman explore why the play was accepted and applauded by some audiences and cultures and condemned, to the point of censorship, by others. Indecent also explores, among its plethora of subjects, the question of what prompts a Jewish writer to create a gritty and naturalistic story, set in a brothel, in which Jews behave both tenderly and terribly, just as other people do. Reacting to this insistence on naturalism, I.L. Peretz, an influential promoter of Jewish and Yiddish theater in 1907, accuses him of fueling anti-Semitism and urges him to burn the play.

Not only does Asch write fearlessly about Jews as flawed human beings, at the center of his plot he sets a pure and beautiful love story between two women. How the response to this relationship evolves from 1907 in Eastern Europe to 1923 on Broadway also comes under Indecent’s scrutiny. In addition (and amongst other themes), the play investigates Asch himself and why he transformed, over the years, from an idealistic young artist to a very different kind of man.

A marvelous, fictional character named Lemml (or, when he arrives in America, “Lou”) opens Indecent by introducing himself as our “Stage Manager.” Lemml (the marvelous Richard Topol) guides us through the production, first by helping us follow the many characters each actor will play, and then by weaving direct address together with his own, poignant scenes.¬†Crucially, too, Lemml enacts for us the process of falling in love with theater and experiencing that love change his life.

Indecent charts the development, not only of The God of Vengeance as it affects its varied audiences, but importantly, the plays’ impact on its performers and on Asch. As Sholem Asch, Max Gordon Moore, remembered for his marvelous performance in last season’s Arcadia, hits every note with moving perfection and turns in a terrific performance as a character I will let you discover. The others in this ensemble transform themselves like quicksilver from character to character, always in perfect focus wherever they land: Mimi Leiber (dryly funny in several of her roles); Tom Nelis (whose delightful dancing brings to mind a slightly manic Fred Astaire); and Steven Rattazzi, who is a born broad comic, whether speaking or singing.

Most poignant and powerful, however, are Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson, who play the lesbian lovers within The God of Vengeance and lovers offstage as well. When Reina (“Ruth” in America) is fired because she cannot learn English properly, her words put a knife to the heart: “This will be the only role in my lifetime where I could tell someone I love that I love her onstage.” Verson also brings youthful excitement, and then subtle despair, to her role as Asch’s wife. Lenk is no less mesmerizing, whether appearing as Diene (the actress performing in Asch’s play) or Manke (the prostitute she portrays). She smolders as a Marlene Dietrich-esque nightclub singer, and makes us shiver in a fragile, heartbreaking role towards the end.

The music in Indecent -- klezmer instrumentals and original songs, composed by Lisa Gutkin, and Aaron Halva, and beautifully performed by Gutkin, Halva, and Travis W. Hendrix as part of the ensemble -- creates some of the productions’ delightful and important moments (placing us in a culture, or introducing a character). However, at times Vogel and Taichman use songs to create just the kind of comic relief that they, especially in a jarring moment late in the play, seem to scorn. Indecent adds at least two unnecessary framing scenes that follow a gorgeous segment that would provide a perfect, incandescent ending.

However, thanks to Taichmans’ fluid direction, along with the spare and inventive scenic design (Riccardo Hernandez); the lovely lighting (Christopher Akerlind); the minimalist costumes (Emily Rebholz); and the brilliant projections by Tal Yarden, Indecent ultimately succeeds. Intellectually, the play may lead you, as it did me, to further investigate Sholem Asch along with much lively conversation. Artistically, this production contains so much astonishing theatricality -- both uplifting and tragic -- that you will walk away with your head and heart spinning.

“Indecent” continues performances at the Yale Repertory Theatre through October 24, 2015. For tickets, please visit http://www.yalerep.org or call the box office at 203-432-1234.

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