Paula Vogel’s Indecent, currently playing at the Arden, explores cultural erasure in America. This play-within-a-play, funny yet heartbreaking, both delights and challenges viewers, juxtaposing the transformative power of love with the destructive power of America.
God of Vengeance
The script was inspired by the creation and production of the controversial play God of Vengeance. Originally written in Yiddish by Sholem Asch in 1906, God of Vengeance tells the story of a Jewish brothel owner attempting to redeem himself by commissioning a Torah and marrying off his apparently virginal daughter to the rabbi’s son. Instead he discovers his daughter is in the midst of a love affair with one of the prostitutes under his roof.
God of Vengeance is believed to be the first Yiddish play to be translated and performed around Europe. After debuting in Berlin in 1907 with an almost six-month run, productions across Europe followed. As many Jews began making their way to New York, the play also grew quite popular with the Yiddish theater communities there. It wasn’t until the show opened on Broadway in 1923 that the true controversy broke out.
Welcome to America
After making history with the first lesbian kiss on Broadway, the entire cast was arrested and tried for obscenity. Indecent investigates what the play meant to the various cast and crew members, and the toll the experience took on each of their lives. While some felt threatened by the themes in God of Vengeance, others praised the play for its pure love story, shining a light on religious hypocrisy, and condemning the suppression of women.
Indecent traces the life of God of Vengeance, beginning with its first reading by Asch’s wife, Madj, to the symbolic death of the play in the 1950s. Asch, once brave and hopeful, refuses to allow God of Vengeance to be produced any longer, fearing it will be used as anti-Semitic propaganda after World War II and in the wake of the McCarthy era.
Indecent focuses mainly on the actors preparing to bring God of Vengeance to New York City's English-speaking theater community. The actress playing Rivkele, the rabbi’s daughter, hears that her accent is too strong—the producers want the audience to “see their own American daughter” in her. She’s essentially told she's “too Jewish” to play the part of a Jewish woman.
Later, the cast discovers the Broadway producers have removed essential scenes that censor the love story, completely altering the message of the play.
Play with music
Not a musical, but instead a play with music, Indecent marks the passage of time and sometimes a shift in location through the use of song, each one serving as a bit of comic relief, finding the funny in the otherwise dark and heavy content.
The first song, “Ale Brider,” a traditional Yiddish folk song, is performed while the cast members dance the hora. But as the play continues, we begin to lose traditional song and dance. After the Broadway announcements, we experience a song-and-dance number so reminiscent of Broadway showtunes that it is jarring in contrast to previous scenes.
Onstage and upstage
A small cast of seven stellar actors (Doug Hara, Michaela Schuchman, Jaime Maseda, Leah Walton, Ross Beschler, Mary Elizabeth Scallen, and David Ingram) portrays the dozens of characters whose lives intersect with the play—from disapproving playwrights in Poland, to the New York rabbis who feel threatened by it, to the actors performing the play over time, and finally to the Jews in the “ghettos” performing it in secret.
Director Rebecca Wright incorporates accordionist Sarah Statler, violinist Rachel Massey, and clarinetist Jason Gresl into the onstage ensemble, alongside well-integrated lighting, set design, staging, and costumes. Digital projections offer necessary context on locations, dates, and language, while actors add and subtract clothing and accessories to delineate different characters.
David P. Gordon’s set is both detailed and basic. An aged-looking proscenium arch crosses the space, allowing certain God of Vengeance scenes to take place upstage, slightly out of view, offering audience members the perspective of an offstage cast or crew member.
Besides religious hypocrisy, suppression of women, and the power of representation in the arts, Indecent asks another important question: “What role do we, as Americans, play in the destruction of other cultures?”
How is it that in the “land of the free,” 17 years after God of Vengeance was originally written, and after multiple highly acclaimed runs all over Europe, that a watered-down version on Broadway could lead to the production being shuttered and the cast arrested?
How is it that people can come here from all over the world with such optimism and hope, yet be so poorly welcomed? We mock accents, demand speaking only English, request modifications to foods that compromise the integrity of the dish, and pick and choose which pieces of other cultures to appreciate. Yet, still, people continue to come here with their dreams.
Sometimes it feels like we’ve come so far as a country, and other times it feels like we haven’t made any progress at all. Indecent is a play worth seeing about true events worth knowing, even if you will leave quietly singing along with the question, “What can we do? It’s America.”
What, When, Where
Indecent by Paula Vogel, directed by Rebecca Wright. Through June 23, 2019 at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 992-1122 or Ardentheatre.org.
The Arden is an ADA-accessible venue. For specific questions about accessibility, call the box office or email [email protected]. Further information can be found here. Indecent will have an audio-described and captioned performance on Friday, June 7 at 8pm, and on Saturday, June 8 at 2pm.