By David A. Rosenberg
“We have a story we want to tell you,” says Lemml, before launching into the adventures not of an individual but a group, a troupe, a clan, a people caught between tradition and modernity. This is “Indecent,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s moving, full-scale, sometimes overstuffed, always fascinating new work. Co-conceived with Rebecca Taichman who also staged the piece -- gloriously -- it is further enhanced by David Dorfman’s exquisite choreography, Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva’s vibrant ethnic music and a design team so in tune with the play that they practically become co-authors.
The starting point for this Yale Rep world premiere is Sholem Asch’s controversial 1907 play, “The God of Vengeance,” which, traveling from Poland to Berlin to St. Petersburg to New York, trailed shame and scandal in its wake. While Vogel acknowledges the drama’s being considered an insult to Jews, she’s concerned with the play’s history, the artists who daringly brought it to life and, most of all, its two most rebellious characters.
Asch’s “Vengeance” tells of a family that lives above the brothel it also runs. The parents have a daughter, Rifkele, whom they want to marry off but her interests are elsewhere. She is, rather, either seduced by or goes willingly into the arms of one of the downstairs whores, Manke, leading to all sorts of hysteria and black marks. Despite references to Yiddish theater and pogroms, Vogel’s main interest is in said love affair between the women which has the double whammy of both focusing the work and causing its repetitions.
“Indecent” itself begins with a testy reading of “The God of Vengeance” in a salon headed by a Polish Jew who wants to encourage works in Yiddish. Its subsequent performances, amusingly depicted as becoming increasingly melodramatic, eventually reach off-Broadway when the troupe migrates to America. Encouraged by a positive reception, the work moves to Broadway, but not before the script is scrubbed of “offensive” aspects, meaning, chiefly, its optimistic attitude towards the lesbian romance.
Still, the work is sufficiently objectionable that the authorities close in, jailing the producer and actors for obscenity and ending the play’s run. One major complainer is Rabbi Joseph Silverman who is both the play’s tower of intolerance and its unwitting Cassandra.
“I expect scurrilous lies from (those) who call themselves Christian,” he says in his denunciatory sermon, “but to be hit by a stone in my back by a fellow Jew!...Perhaps two Jewish women will, decades from now, be able to exchange vows as bride and groom and who knows, stand under the huppah together.”
Thus Vogel, clearly on the side of the lesbians, bridges years, contrasting the 20th century, when to be gay was anathema, and the 21st, in the era of legal same-sex marriage. Further, despite the ostensible emphasis of “Indecent” on the travails of “Vengeance” and its depiction of Judaism, it is as much about creativity and the artist’s desires to express herself.
The evening’s most lyrical scene, a fantasy where the two lovers venture into the rain, get soaked and run off together, is as good a climax as any. But Vogel has more to say; indeed, the play seems about to end several times before it actually does.
Although Richard Topol stands out as the compassionate, versatile Lemml, all the actors superbly take on numerous roles in what is truly an ensemble production. Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi and Adina Verson join musicians Gutkin, Halva and Travis W. Hendrix in embodying the period style and contemporary implications of this historical piece.
With further work and some judicious cutting (it runs 105 minutes with no intermission), “Indecent” may turn out to be a major work. As it is, it’s exciting theater.