Jack Chapman (aka Yankel
Tshaptshovitsh) ….. Matthew Boston
Sara ….. Nike Doukas
Rivkele ….. Rachel Miner
Manke ….. Naama Potok
Hindl ….. Johanna Melamed
Shloyme ….. Mikael Salazar
Reyzl ….. Betsy Schwartz
Basha ….. Tricia Rodley
Reb Eli ….. Larry Block
The Scribe (Reb Aaron) ….. Sol Frieder
An Orthodox Man ….. Andrew Traister
Lower East Side Kids ….. Ian Nelson-Roehl,
In-Law ….. Wauchor Stephens
Indigents ….. Frank Krasnowsky,
Jay A. Hurwitz
Poor Women ….. Ilene Fins, Hinda Kipnis
Partygoers, Minyan ….. Mike Christensen,
Matt Purvis, Joe Shapiro, Mary Unruh
God of Vengeance” may not win another Pulitzer for playwright Donald Margulies, but it will provide an engaging evening of drama for anyone who’s interested in theater history, or in Jewish literature or culture.
The story behind the script is remarkable. It was originally written in Yiddish in 1906 by Sholom Asch, a writer well-known at the turn of the 20th century. It was subsequently translated into many languages, including English, and over the years it received numerous productions around the world. But when it was presented at the Apollo Theater on Broadway in 1923, the producer, the owner of the Apollo and 12 actors were indicted by a grand jury for “the crime of presenting an obscene, indecent, immoral and impure theatrical production.”
The censors found plenty to object to in the play. The central characters include a pimp, several whores and two women who fall in love — perhaps the first lesbian relationship to be portrayed on Broadway. And to make matters more incendiary, all the characters are Jewish. So the play was roundly attacked as both immoral and anti-Semitic. (Variety called it “the most disgusting play ever presented on Broadway.”)
Nearly 80 years years later, Margulies, with the encouragement of A Contemporary Theater’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein, decided to revive the play. To make it more relevant for a modern audience, Margulies transferred the action from an early 20th-century Polish village to Manhattan in 1923. And he changed a significant portion of the action and dialogue, to make it less (in his words) “clunky.” But the premise remained the same: A morally corrupt man tries in vain to shelter his precious daughter from the evils of the brothel he runs on the ground floor of his row house.
The new setting pushes the play’s themes into high relief: the moral costs of American opportunism, the contrast between false piety and true faith, the dangers of tyranny, the indelibility of sin.
In fact, at times ACT’s production seems almost too thematic. The father (Matthew Boston) is so hypocritical and evil you feel like hissing at him. And the daughter (Rachel Miner) is so innocent and victimized you feel like making an emergency phone call to the authorities.
Toward the end, the teenage daughter finally rebels against her father’s overprotectiveness and runs away to join her lover. After her mother drags her home, the father insists on treating the young woman like a recalcitrant 5 -year-old — sitting her down on his knee and patting her head. You can practically hear the audience squirming in its seats. Scenes like this give the play a melodramatic cast that may honestly recall its roots, but they don’t sit well with contemporary sensibilities.
On the plus side, the production is comfortably paced and beautifully designed. Hugh Landwehr’s upstairs/downstairs set evokes a blue “heaven” (the family’s apartment) above a red “hell” (the brothel), which together provide a dramatic backdrop for the family’s struggle with good and evil.
Director Edelstein also elicits some good performances from the large (20 -person) cast, many of whom are newcomers to ACT. Particularly notable is Nike Doukas as the mother. She’s long-suffering, but feisty and practical — believable as a Jewish mother, but not stereotypical.
The play takes its title from one character’s description of God: “He is a god of mercy, a god of compassion. But we must not forget he is also a vindictive god, a god of vengeance.” If the latter god visits ACT, he might find this play overly schematic and melodramatic. But more generous theater fans will take interest in its colorful evocation of the Lower East Side in the ’20s and its indisputable historical significance.