By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
In 2017 history was made on when, for the first time ever, two female playwrights opened new work on Broadway–Lynn Nottage’s Sweat and Paula Vogel’s Indecent. In 2017!
Both had already won Pulitzers yet only now were debuting on Broadway. (By the way, none of the eight men who opened plays on B’way in 2017 had Pulitzers.) The Pittsburgh Public Theater presented Sweat last season and now bring us Indecent.
Here’s the facts: In 1906 a Polish Jewish writer, Sholem Asch, wrote God of Vengeance, a play about a man who professes piety in his home upstairs while running a brothel downstairs. It became both an international hit and a scandal. When an English-language version opened on Broadway in 1923 the cast was arrested on charges of obscenity.
Some Jewish leaders where involved with the effort to close the play because–with an eye on the rising anti-Semitism of the time–they were repulsed that a Jew would write a Jewish character who’s immoral pursuit of money fed into already existing hideous tropes. And, too, the play featured the virginal daughter of the brother/owner in a relationship with a prostitute and the two were shown sharing a kiss in the rain. It’s quite possible that the 1923 production is the first time two women kissed on a Broadway stage.
Asch, who had resettled in America, eventually came to disown the play and, with the rise of McCarthyism finally left the States.
Indecent continues through May 19. Pittsburgh Public Theater, Downtown. 412-316-1600. www.ppt.org
Indecent, then, is Vogel’s depiction of that story – we begin at the first reading of the play at a literary salon in Poland where everyone is shocked and horrified. We move to the play’s opening and success in Germany, then various European capitals and finally landing in America for all the drama with the New York production.
What keeps Indecent from being a docudrama is Vogel’s exercise of her imagination. She conjures up the fictional character of Lemml, a tailor from a Polish hick town who is so transformed by the play’s first reading, he travels with the show across continents.
Vogel has him act as our emcee – one of her conceits is to present the evening as a performance by a Yiddish theater company. Lemml invites us in, introduces us to the actors and musicians and it’s this troupe presenting Indecent to us.
For much of the evening it’s a fascinating, hugely entertaining event. Risa Brainin’s direction is a celebration of the power of theatricality and her manipulation of theater time and space is nothing short of mesmerizing. It’s a huge story that Vogel is telling and Brainin controls it down to the smallest moment.
Though not an actual musical, Indecent features klezmer-inspired original music by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva along with traditional and period songs. All of it is glorious, thanks in no small part to the somewhat legendary John McDaniel in town to serve as music director and the superb musicianship of Erikka Walsh, Janice Coppola and Spiff Wiegand.
Maury Ginsberg is the foundational center of this production playing Lemml with a power as quiet as it is electrifying. He leads a cast of actors who bring breath-taking fearlessness and honesty; Laurie Klatscher, Robert Zukerman, Meg Pryor, Ricardo Vila-Roger, Emily Daly and Robert Tendy.
For me, and maybe it’s only me, Indecent goes off the rails when Vogel lets her imagination run too wild. The fact is, that almost everything we’ve seen up to this point has either been misleading or invented out of whole cloth doesn’t bother me … it’s a play, not journalism. But here Vogel leaves God of Vengeance behind and drops us into the middle of the Holocaust.
Of course it would be impossible (if not unforgivable) to talk about Jews in the 1930s without Nazi inhumanity playing a role. But Indecent switches gears at this point, becoming a story about the rise of Hitler and genocide and suddenly God of Vengeance feels like little more than a footnote to a more important subject. Her attempts to weave the two together by inventing a scene in a Lodz ghetto doesn’t solve the problem, in fact that invention only calls out the unreality of what’s preceded it.
Judging from the sniffles around me, I might be the only person in the world with this concern … so don’t let me dissuade you from seeing an impeccably crafted production featuring the tremendous work of theater artists telling a fascinating story from theater’s past.