Paula Vogel opens her show within the playbill in the form of a note to the audience. In this note she describes the purpose of theatre as a way to, “...wound our memory so we can remember.” This memory wounding then reminds us of past traumas and pain, which are then re-examined and perhaps resolved once the wound heals or at least that’s one way to interpret it. Indecent, Vogel’s newest play and long overdue Broadway debut does more than merely wound the memory, it touches the soul. That intangible thread that connects all of us as people and whether we believe in one or not, Vogel finds a way to reach us there and remind us that we aren’t alone.
The play revolves around Sholem Asch’s debut as a Jewish playwright with his 1907 drama God of Vengeance. Indecent follows the journey of Asch, his play, and those who work within it, as the production makes its way from Poland to Berlin, Russia, Turkey and eventually to New York. Asch’s play, which he himself renounces, is highly controversial for its time - it features a pious Jewish father who runs a brothel, it also features a lesbian relationship between his daughter and one of his prostitutes, and the throwing of the Torah across the stage. The play is eventually translated to English from Yiddish and, to the chagrin of cast and crew, censored in a fashion that distorts the purity of the relationship between the two women - it finally reaches Broadway at the Apollo Theatre and after a brief run, the cast, crew and producer are arrested and trialled. The play is labeled by the court, among other things, indecent.
However, the Tony-winning play at the Cort theatre is far from indecent. It is a powerful work of art that pulls the audience into a tumultuous time where stigma and prejudice are ever-present. The play serves as a reminder of the pain and danger of hatred towards others based upon their religion, sexual orientation, race, appearance, or beliefs - this is an aspect of what Vogel means when she says that theatre is a way to, “wound our memory.” The show also masterfully balances heavy subject matter with raucously funny scenes and characters. This high contrast between the light and dark moments serves to intensify the impact of each scene.
Rebecca Taichman’s Tony-award winning direction is seamless, fluid and expertly sharp, beautifully enhanced by the help of a well-deserved Tony winner for lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. She and the actors, who masterfully imbue each of their many characters with humanity, make seamless transitions from Yiddish, to German, to English - from a small Polish writing room, to a German burlesque, to a Broadway stage, and to the immortal imagination of one of the most historically significant Jewish writers of all time.
Max Gordon Moore brings a young Sholem Asch to life with a steaming drive that turns into staunch dismay and curmudgeonliness. Richard Topol is truth and honesty at it’s purest in his role as Lemml, the kind-hearted, earnest stage-manager - his performance still gives me chills when I think about it, not only because of its beauty but because of its staggering humanity. Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson the two women who play Rifkele and Manke (among many other roles) - the lesbian lovers, bring tender intimacy and unconditional love into the world of Ache’s play. God of Vengeance features an iconic romance scene where Rifkele and Manke are out in the pouring rain, it stands to be one of the most stunning scenes of love between two people to ever grace the stage.
Indecent is a once in a lifetime play and to see it leave Broadway so soon is truly a loss for the theatre community in New York. It is a play that brings to life a play that is over a century old and yet could not be more timely. America, and the world at large, is rife with xenophobia, homophobia and anti-semitism - perhaps, if only we could, if everyone would sit down and watch this play, our memories would be wounded enough to realise that we are all just people trying to do our best in the brief yet wonderful time that we have. Maybe then, we could understand each other a little more and dash out into the pouring rain to embrace and love one another without fear.