It’s humbling, not to say near-impossible, to fully convey the thrumming resonance of Indecent, the evanescent shimmer of a show that arrived on Broadway tonight following its New York debut last spring at the Vineyard Theatre. But I’ll give it my best and hope that you’ll set aside any argument touting its importance – because Indecent ain’t just spinach – and instead make haste for the Cort Theatre simply to share the astonishing power of this new play with music about a delicious ancient Broadway scandal that pulses through the decades to our own time.
Like last season’s Shuffle Along, which refracted an African-American musical from the 1920s through the lenses of ensuing cultural history, Indecent begins a century ago. Not on Broadway but in Warsaw, Poland, where The God of Vengeance, a first play by the rising young literary star Sholem Asch, is given a prized reading in the salon of the famed Yiddish writer and critic Isaac Leib Peretz.
In an opening scene, whose shattering symbolism will take some time to be revealed, seven actors and three musicians are introduced almost as spirits, the sleeves of their garments releasing wispy trails of dust. Our master of ceremonies is Lemml (Richard Topol), a former tailor and now stage manager for the theater troupe comprising the seasoned founders Vera and Otto (Mimi Lieber and Tom Nellis); the journeymen Halina and Mendel (Katrina Lenk and Steven Rattazzi, who “play all of the vamps and all of the vice, the scarred, and the schemers,” Lemml says); and the ingénues Chana and Avram (Adina Verson and Max Gordon Moore), who will begin the show as Asch and his bride Madje. The versatile onstage klezmer band is Matt Darriau (clarinet, bass clarinet and tin whistle); Lisa Gutkin (violin and mandolin, and co-creator of the score); and Aaron Halva (accordion, baritone ukelele and percussion, and co-creator of the score).
Consistent with their status in this imagined company, the actors and musicians take on multiple roles in both Indecent, which is a collaboration between Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (How I Learned To Drive) and director Rebecca Taichman (How To Transcend A Happy Marriage), and in the scenes from Asch’s play-within-the-play.
The God of Vengeance tells the tale of a devout Jewish father who runs a brothel (only, he insists, to raise enough money for his daughter’s dowry). The daughter falls in love with the most desirable prostitute, a love first sealed with a kiss in the rain so shocking that it causes the men reading the script at Peretz’s salon to pronounce the work “garbage.” The assault is further inflamed with the script’s concluding image as the father, who has now consigned his daughter to join her lover in the whorehouse below, raises his cherished Torah, preparing to fling it down the stairs after them.
“Why must every Jew on stage be a paragon?” Asch asks the scandalized writers. “You are pouring petrol on the flames of anti-Semitism!” Peretz responds. “This is not the time.”
“When?” Asch, wounded, lashes back. “When will be the right time?”
Determined and confident, Asch brings the play to Berlin, where in 1910 it is staged to great acclaim at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theatre. A similar reception comes in other European capitals. The company then arrives at Ellis Island, where long lines of immigrant families wait under unbearable strain as some are allowed to pass through while others are sent back. In New York, the play is first presented at Eugene O’Neill’s Provincetown Playhouse, in 1922 (in one darkly funny scene at 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, an attempt to appease censors, but to no avail: That kiss in the rain is all the police 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 evening, accompanied by music, sometimes spirited, sometimes haunting. In addition to the score, 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. That kiss in the rain takes on more and more significance as the one-act performance moves inexorably to its conclusion, with an onstage drenching that will send chills down your spine, especially as performed – hungrily, tenderly – by Lenk (who also starred brilliantly in The Band’s Visit) and Verson.
Here’s the thing, though: Indecent is not so much the story of The God of Vengeance as it is of Sholem Asch’s coming of age as artist and man. His play holds together and grows in power across the decades. After serving on a State Department committee dispatched to Europe in the early 1930s to investigate reports of pogroms, Asch rethinks his original goal of portraying Jews as just like any other people. And that opening scene returns as brutal memory. The story continues through the rise of Nazism and the Communist witch hunts that in the U.S. followed World War II and even managed to entangle the now thoroughly disillusioned Asch.
It seems appropriate to use a German expression – gesamtkunstwerk – for Indecent. It means a work of art encompassing many arts: drama, music, poetry, dance. It isn’t understating to call this fantastic play a work of all-encompassing art. It takes us a very long distance in just an hour and 40 minutes. It’s an exhilarating ride you’ll never forget.