April 20-- NEW YORK-How did a Yiddish playwright born the youngest of 10 children in Kutno, Poland, the child of Hasidic Jews who frowned on secular education, come to write a lesbian love scene so thrillingly passionate that it would scandalize Broadway in 1923?
How did this man write of womanly love and sex with such tender veracity that it would reappear in 2017 as the ultimate scene in a new Broadway play by Paula Vogel that's centered on the premise that this scene was such an encapsulation of pure desire as to be without peer for at least the first half of the 20th century?
"Indecent," which opened Tuesday at the Cort Theatre as a very rare Broadway drama without any celebrities in the cast, doesn't fully answer either question, even though Sholem Asch's deeply empathetic act of creativity seemingly violates the common contemporary assumption that it would be a questionable artistic act of appropriation. Had it really tackled those complicated questions, it would have been a far more controversial piece among its target demographic and thus, to my mind, yet more in the spirit of the maverick work of Asch, a fearless man who dared to write about a rabbi who kept a brothel right under his own apartment, and who even dispatched his own daughter down there to fend for herself.
Nonetheless, there is no questioning the force and sincerity of Vogel's determination to elevate the biography and artistic contribution of a little-known playwright whose early 20th-century work suffered the discrimination widely faced by the Yiddish theater, and by the immigrant artists whose stories it represented.
As Vogel tells it in a highly skilled, clearly personal and deftly structured piece-co-conceived and directed by Rebecca Taichman-Asch was the near equal of such famed masters of the nascent American theater as Eugene O'Neill, and certainly a writer with even more courage. But even though the threshold for an obscenity trial in 1923 was absurdly low (Jack Kirkland's adaptation of "Tobacco Road" had the same problem in the 1930s), Vogel makes the case that the troubles for "God of Vengeance," first written in German in 1907, compounded when the English-language version secured a berth on Broadway. Had Asch and his fellow actors stayed in the Bohemian environs of the West Village and the Provincetown Playhouse, they'd probably have been left alone, especially after they cut their offending scene. But when you go for the Main Stem, the establishment snaps back. Asch, though, refused to bend.
I suspect Vogel well understands the issues he faced.
The very fact that "Indecent," previously seen at the Vineyard Theatre, has made it to Broadway is a post-facto vindication of Asch and his colleagues, who got closed down. When you add what happened to those colleagues-and to the Jewish traditions from which they were drawing, and the Yiddish stories they wanted to tell-in the decades that followed, you can feel the historical force and weight of Vogel's play, which likely will be a future staple of regional and collegiate theater.
"Indecent" (which has a small but pleasing amount of live music) has much in common with "Shuffle Along," the George C. Wolfe musical that charted the attempts of an African-American theater company to find its way to an inhospitable Broadway, and, as such, is part of a new determination on the Great White Way to remind its contemporary audience and practitioners of its uncomfortable past. As a commercial marketplace, of course, it reflected broader American mores and hierarchies. But it has been slow to change, for it requires the audience to lead the way.
Both of these shows-each highly enlightening-have employed a play within a play. Thus "Indecent," which is authentically acted by an egalitarian ensemble (Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore and Tom Nelis are the generous top-liners) and staged with hefty symbolic gravitas and surety by Taichman, is a work about the experience of "God of Vengeance" that also uses some of Asch's scenes. You could call it an illustrated lecture, where the professor takes you by the hand. But it's better described as a contextualization, or a long overdue recalibration of artistic hierarchy. For a moment when the vaults of historical injustice are being opened and probed throughout the culture.
Vogel's connection to this play and what it did for her as a young artist is at the core of why "Indecent" deserves this production and the support it surely will need from the popular audience. For the many fans of this famous teaching artist, "Indecent" will feel like one widely acclaimed artist pointing out how she was dependent on the earlier struggles of another who was not so lucky in his moment of birth. The factuality of that lineage is irrefutable, and it explains how most arts teachers get out of bed in the morning.
"Indecent" plays at the Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th St.; www.indecentonbroadway.com
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