In Sholem Asch’s 1907 play, The God of Vengeance (Got fun nekome), a lesbian virgin and a prostitute make love in the rain. Despite accompanying scandal, Europe applauds. In 1923, when, after several U.S. productions, a translated version reaches Broadway, its cast is arrested, then convicted on obscenity charges. The now established Asch, living and working on Staten Island, doesn’t show up to defend the company. Much happened between.
Stage Manager Lemmel (a splendidly empathetic Richard Topol) introduces his thespians and musicians – ingénues, middle aged actors, and those who play the elderly. Each stands. Ashes pour from their sleeves. (Inspired) “We have a story about a play that changed my life…”
We’re all brothers and sing happy songs/We stick together like nobody else does…the company sings in Yiddish.
It’s 1906 Warsaw. Polish/Jewish author Sholem Asch, 1880-1957 (the entirely credible Max Gordon Moore) is excited about reading his play at the writers’ salon of cultural figurehead Y.L. Peretz (Tom Nellis, also in a roster of vibrantly realized roles). Peretz spearheads a renaissance of Yiddish writing, Asch’s mother tongue. The piece is condemned by those gathered for showing Jewish people in poor light. Only a tailor named Lemmel, invited by his cousin, is enthusiastic. “A minion,” Asch comments darkly in response, “is ten Jews in a circle accusing each other of Antisemitism.”
The God of Vengeance features a hypocritically pious, Jewish brothel owner who commissions an expensive Torah scroll intending to marry his daughter off to a yeshiva student to secure respectability. When she falls in love with a prostitute, her furious father throws down the Torah and banishes the girl and her mother to earn their keep “on your backs.”
Richard Topol and Adina Verson
In search of creative freedom, Shalom and his wife Mathilde (Adina Verson) move to Berlin as initially depicted here by a Weimar Cabaret act. There the piece is produced in a German version by Max Reinhardt with Rudolph Shildkraut (Nellis) in the lead. “I assume I will be the butch and you the feminine, but how do I play a Jew?” the more experienced actress (Katrina Lenk) reflects. (The other is played by Verson.) We watch as these two discover one another. Lemmel shows up (it’s not clear how) and becomes the production’s stage manager, a position he’ll hold for the rest of his life.
The show tours outside of Poland. We see excerpts with the use of actors freezing while “a blink in time” appears on the translation screen – a method to fast forward. The couple emigrates to New York. Asch pulls strings to insure Lemmel joins them. Peyos (long, hanging sidelocks) are dispensed with. “Even Jews looks like Goys in America,” they sing and dance. Many take English names and endeavor to learn the language. Asch continues to write in Yiddish.
Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk; Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson
There are two successful downtown runs. Audiences appreciate the playwright’s ability to bring Jewish themes to secular subjects. A translation that takes liberties to which Lemmel and the cast object, but Asch ignores “why should I bother with a play I wrote when I was in short pants” facilitates a debut at Broadway’s Apollo Theater. (The nature of these makes this plausible.) Arrests follow. Though notable artists volunteer to testify in defense (Eugene O’Neill is shown), the court denies them opportunity.
Angry and disillusioned, Lemmel goes back to Warsaw where he’s incarcerated in the ghetto (and eventually taken to a camp). The “company” add Jewish stars to their threadbare coats and perform one makeshift act of the play each week. This is wrenching. In the meantime, Asch and his wife…
Richard Topol, Katrina Verson, Katrina Lenk, Tom Nellis, Stephen Ratazzi, and Mimi Lieber
Paula Vogel and Rebecca Teichman’s deft, provocative production has moved, much intact, from The Vineyard Theatre to The Cort. I hope its new location brings the worthy piece extended audience. I’m Jewish, my companion tonight is not; impact seems equally experienced. Subjects like censorship, religious conservatism, cultural convention, assimilation, and bigotry – here, both Antisemitism and homophobia are universally relevant.
Though it’s passionate, Indecent is not a polemic. The eloquent book is peppered with songs and dances, both traditionally Yiddish (translations appear when necessary, on a screen) and popular English WWII numbers. These can lighten proceedings or darken them with sharp juxtaposition to events. Failings and accomplishment are depicted through specific human characters, not ideas. Indecent (an ambiguous title) is both immensely moving and entertaining.
Manke (the prostitute)… Because I don’t want to talk any more. Okay? No more talking.Talking’s never a good idea. I wanna dance.
Orthodox Man (her client) Dance?
(She goes to the Victrola, puts on a jaunty Tin Pan Alley tune.)
Manke: There, come on let’s dance. (She pulls him to his feet.)
Orthodox Man: No, no, I can’t.
Manke: What do you mean you can’t?
Orthodox Man: It’s not allowed…
Manke: “Not allowed?” You’ll pay to shtup me but you won’t dance with me?
From The God of Vengeance
The God of Vengeance was translated into multiple languages enjoying a long life abroad. Shalom Asch’s works are many and varied. He eventually wrote in English. In an attempt to show religious similarities, one trilogy examines pointedly Christian subjects. It elicited backlash from both sides.
Also featuring Mimi Lieber and Stephen Rattazzi.
The outstanding cast can act, sing, and dance. Many speak perfect Yiddish. Well integrated onstage, Co-Composers/Music Directors- Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva play multiple instruments joined by the equally skilled Matt Darriau.
Emily Rebholtz’s Costumes reflect the time/place/people like archival photos. Choreography by David Dorfman aesthetically captures tradition and context with skill.
Director Rebecca Teichman has illuminated a complicated story in accessible, affecting manner. Intermingling musical numbers with dialogue enhances rather than distracts from both aspects of the production. Use of the translation screen works well. Actors are given space to inhabit their characters.
Forewarned: This is another production of some length ( 1 3/4 hours) without an intermission! (A current fad with which I disagree past 75 minutes.)
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Shalom Asch-Max Gordon Moore & Lemmel- Richard Topol
Indecent by Paula Vogel
Created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Projection Design- Tal Yarden
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