A play with music about a play with music — sounds crazy, no? And yet here in New York City, in the same season, we have not one but two plays with music about plays with music, each thrilling in their own way. Shuffle Along, from George C. Wolfe, you already know about; it’s on Broadway and it’s about a hit musical from 1921 created by black artists and mostly forgotten — except for the wide-ranging impact it had on white the musicals that came after. Indecent is about a play from the same era, written by a Polish Jew, that also created a stir on Broadway when it was shut down by the morality police for portraying — scandal! — two women kissing.
Indecent opened last night at the invaluable Vineyard Theatre, an off-Broadway company whose contributions to our recent pleasures include Avenue Q, How I Learned To Drive, The Scottsboro Boys, Three Tall Women, Goblin Market and others too numerous to mention. The new show is a collaboration between How I Learned To Drive playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman, who most recently staged Danai Gurira’s Familiar. Performed by a company of seven actors and three musicians playing some 40 roles (and eight instruments), it’s a fantastic work of imagination, craft and history, seamlessly interweaving a forgotten play — and the tragic history of that forgotten play — into a spellbinding evening.
In an opening whose shattering symbolism will take some time to be revealed, the actors are introduced almost as spirits, their limbs dispensing wispy trails of dust. The drama at hand is God of Vengeance, the first play by Sholem Asch, a young writer of fiction, about a Jewish father who runs a brothel (only, he tells the rabbi, to raise enough money for his daughter’s dowry). The daughter falls in love with the most desirable prostitute, a love first consummated with a kiss in the rain that caused Asch’s local colleagues to denounce the manuscript as blasphemous.
“Why must every Jew on stage be a paragon,” Asch asks his scandalized friends. “You are pouring petrol on the flames of anti-Semitism,” one responds. “This is not the time.”
Determined and confident, Asch brings the play to Berlin, where in 1910 it is staged at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theatre to great acclaim. A similar reception comes in other European capitals. In New York, it’s first presented at Eugene O’Neill’s Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, in 1922 (in one hilarious scene in a dingy West Side bar, O’Neill himself calls it “a corker of a play”). But a move to Broadway proves disastrous. With Asch and his wife living on Staten Island, the script is altered to make the love affair more sinister, to no avail; that kiss in the rain is all the censors need to shut it down and haul the company off to jail.
All of this is presented through brief scenes from the play, several of them repeated throughout the brief evening, accompanied by a klezmer trio playing music, sometimes spirited, sometimes haunting, composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva. Our entry into the story is provided through the character of Lemml (Richard Topol, in an engaging performance) who is the sole defender of the play at that first reading and subsequently becomes Asch’s stage manager and conscience.
In addition to the music, Indecent is moved swiftly by David Dorfman’s limpid choreography in concert with Taichman’s sensitive direction. Riccardo Hernandez, Christopher Akerlind and Emily Rebholz have done simple yet exquisite work in the designs of set, lighting and costumes.
Here’s the thing, though: Because Indecent is in truth the story not of God of Vengeance but of Sholem Asch’s coming of age as artist and man, the play holds together and grows in power across the decades. After serving on a committee dispatched to Europe to investigate reports of pogroms, Asch rethinks his original impetus of portraying Jews as just like any other people. The opening scene returns as brutal memory. The story continues through the rise of Nazism and the Communist witch hunts that in the U.S. came after World War II. That’s a long distance to travel in an hour and 40 minutes. It’s an exhilarating ride.
Uptown at the Signature Theatre, another ensemble is offering fine work in Daphne’s Dive, the latest play from Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Allegría Hudes (Water By the Spoonful). The bar of the title is in North Philadelphia, the playwright’s favorite setting, where Daphne (Vanessa Aspillaga) is the mamafamilias to an assorted crew that includes a free-spirited activist (KK Moggie), a starving artist (Matt Saldivar) who fills his canvases with the detritus of the local denizens, and a glass worker (Gordon Joseph Weiss) always available for work on local construction sites.
Also on hand are Daphne’s adopted daughter Ruby (Orange is the New Black‘s Samira Wiley), and Daphne’s sister and brother-in-law (Daphne Rubin-Vega and Carlos Gomez), who have escaped to the suburbs where he’s a contractor and aspiring politician and she’s a happy inductee into Club Nouveau Riche.
Hudes has a fine grasp of the friction created by the social tectonic plates that shift according to the waves of gentrification and governance. Each of these characters is good company — there’s a distant echo here of Rent, and not just because of Rubin-Vega’s welcome presence. It’s all beautifully calibrated under the direction of Thomas Kail (Hamilton) in Donyale Werle’s terrific environmental set, atmospherically lit by Betsy Adams. The clothes by Toni-Leslie James are also character-perfect. The performances are all of a piece but Wiley is outstanding as a girl rescued from horror who faces growing demons of her own. As any fan of OITNB can attest, she’s an actress you cannot take your eyes off of; she shines.