Paula Vogel’s Indecent stokes the emotional fires on multiple levels, not the least of which is sheer anger: Anger over the quashing of freedom of artistic expression. Anger about intolerance and bigotry. Anger that a gifted Yiddish playwright’s spirit was just about broken, that dark unrelenting forces sought to subjugate, to erase, the Jewish culture. Yet Vogel’s one-act play with music, a co-production between Yale Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse, is constructed upon quiet, thoughtful reflection more than anger. It’s a sad, sensitive work created for the stage by Vogel and by director Rebecca Taichman that even in that sadness never loses sight of the resolve and life force of the Jewish people.
Right away, the narrative tells us that Indecent is a play about a play: Sholem Asch’s 1906 God of Vengeance, which affected and challenged audiences in Europe before coming to America and ultimately, in 1923, to Broadway where it was shut down and its cast charged with obscenity. The “obscenity”: the depiction of a lesbian relationship, a Jewish brothel and the renunciation and ill treatment of the Torah. Indecent’s seven-person ensemble (plus three musicians, also immersed in the action) brings to life the staging of God of Vengeance, both in a Polish attic and on the (ahem) Great White Way. Yet in spite of the elaborate staging of and absorption in the lesbian lovers’ “Rain Scene” in God of Vengeance, it is Indecent’s offstage stories – those of embattled playwright Asch (Max Gordon Moore), of two actresses (Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson) in love, of immigrant stage manager Lemml (Richard Topol), the soul and conscience of the play – that reverberate.
Each cast member plays multiple roles, which can be distracting until you get used to it, and Vogel to some extent has stacked ending upon ending upon ending (albeit each of them is poetic and penetrating in its own way). Still, the constant presence of the musicians (Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva, Travis W. Hendrix) and the choreography by David Dorfman that doesn’t call undue attention to itself portray a microcosmic world where art thrived for its own sake and a people stood resolute amid torment and oppression, and sought to live life with joy.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.