"Indecent" at Yale Repertory Theatre

By Geary Danihy

There’s a play within a play about a play currently playing at Yale Repertory Theatre. It’s the world premiere of Paula Vogel’s Indecent, directed by Rebecca Taichman, and it is an often mesmerizing yet somewhat emotionally aloof effort to make a mountain out of a dramatic molehill.

Back in 1907, the Jewish author and playwright Sholem Asch wrote a play in Yiddish called The God of Vengeance (see Psalm 94 for the allusion). Given the era, it was a daring attempt to depict Jewish characters warts and all, for it is set in a brothel run by a Jewish father (the family lives on the second floor of the establishment) and features a lesbian relationship between his daughter and one of the prostitutes, a relationship that eventually has the father turn away from God and desecrate the Torah scrolls. Heady stuff.

The play migrated to New York in 1907, as did Asch, and was produced in the thriving Yiddish theater for many years and, eventually, in English translation, was staged by the Provincetown Playhouse and then, after it was “cleaned up,” on Broadway in 1923. It soon closed, with the cast, producers and theater owner arrested for obscenity, a charge brought by a local rabbi.

Context is all here. Even with the notes in the show’s program, one never really understands the importance of Asch’s play to the Jewish community or what is exactly up for grabs. Hence, watching as the troupe of fine actors depicts Vengeance’s many manifestations, including a production in a ghetto in Poland during World War II, one can’t help but feel a bit removed from what is happening up on the stage. It’s obvious that someone -- or many people -- think all of this is important. Would that Vogel could have figured out a way to convey that importance.

And yet, this is, by and large, an enjoyable evening of theater, thanks to the stellar cast and Taichman’s deft direction. For most of the evening, it’s actually a romp, with the actors dancing and skipping from scene to scene, moving to the music provided by Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva and Travis W. Hendrix, who form what might be thought of as a klezmer pick-up band. The actors, guided by Richard Topol, who plays Lemml, the stage manager, take on multiple roles as historical characters (Eugene O’Neill even makes an appearance in an Irish bar, a perhaps superfluous scene) and as characters in Asch’s play.

The opening scene has the actors arranged upstage -- there’s no scenery -- the Rep’s innards are laid bare for all to see -- and few props, just some suitcases and a desk for the final scene. The actors are set all in a row, as if they are sitting shiva. Projected text in English and Hebrew -- integral to understanding what is going on -- indicates that they are rising from the ashes. In perhaps the only false directorial move during the evening, as the actors rise and come forward ashes fall from their sleeves...and continue to fall...and fall...and fall. It’s a bit of overkill, so to speak.

However, once the dust clears, this talented group of thespians -- Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi and Adina Verson -- do put on a show, or rather multiple shows. Oddly enough, it’s the actors you come to care about and admire -- their skill and talent -- more so than the multiple characters they are asked to bring to life. This holds true save for the Vengeance characters portrayed by Lenk and Verson, the two women who form a romantic relationship, for Vogel has wisely used their relationship, and their pivotal scene in Vengeance -- the “Rain” scene -- as the emotional center of her play.

As Vengenace moves from venue to venue, it is this scene that is referenced over and over again, building audience anticipation to actually see what has mesmerized everyone involved with Asch’s play. Vogel, Taichman and scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez, as well as Lenk and Verson, deliver on the build. There is, in fact, a rain scene, wonderfully staged.

The basic problem with the play is that the audience really doesn’t know what it is supposed to focus on, what it is supposed to care about. Is it Asch’s artistic struggle (the final scene would suggest so), or what he viewed happening to the Jews in Europe? Is it the life of Vengeance, its historical and dramatic importance? Surely it’s not the fact that the actors and producers were arrested and brought to trial -- this happens late in the play and is almost an afterthought, and Asch’s reluctance to step forward and defend his work seems muted. The play seems to echo other plays -- oddly enough, even Cabaret -- to draw on them for emotional bulk and essence. There’s a lot going on as this play within a play plays itself out, and you certainly can appreciate all the skill and talent up there on the stage and the creative thought that went into its staging, but…the mind can be intrigued and diverted while the heart, well, it seeks something it can embrace. Indecent is intriguing, but it is not embraceable.

Indecent runs through Oct. 24. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org


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