Donald Margulies' questionable adaptation of Sholom Asch's 1906 Yiddish melodrama "God of Vengeance" is one of the toughest nuts the Williamstown Theater Festival has ever tried to crack. It came to New York in 1922-23, where its elements of prostitution and lesbianism and accusations of anti-Semitism led to the arrest and fining of the company.
Donald Margulies’ questionable adaptation of Sholom Asch’s 1906 Yiddish melodrama “God of Vengeance” is one of the toughest nuts the Williamstown Theater Festival has ever tried to crack. Written prior to Asch moving to the U.S. from his native Poland in 1909, the original was produced by Max Reinhardt in Berlin in 1910 with Rudolph Shildkraut in the lead. It came to New York with Shildkraut, in English, in 1922-23, where its elements of prostitution and lesbianism and accusations of anti-Semitism led to the arrest and fining of the company (which included Morris Carnovsky).
No vice squad is likely to storm the stage of the Williamstown Theater Festival today, but the play has other problems now: This often miscast and barely realized production grows increasingly implausible as it proceeds, culminating in a second-act lurch into soap opera.
Margulies has updated the play to 1923 and moved it from Poland to New York’s Lower East Side, a different time and place with different morals and mores. The switch doesn’t sit comfortably, primarily because even with Margulies’ updates, the script plays like a screenplay for an early German film along the lines, say, of Pabst’s 1925 “The Joyless Street.” And the cast, particularly the young women playing the prostitutes, is altogether too modern American. Both characters and situations just don’t ring true.
The storyline now involves Jack Chapman (Ron Leibman), who migrated to the U.S. as “a scrawny orphan with nothing” and has established himself by running a brothel. He has married one of his prostitutes, Sara (Diane Venora), and has a daughter, Rivkele (Laura Breckenridge), for whom he has hopes of a better life.
Jack plans to close the brothel, go straight and marry his daughter off to a man of substance. But all his plans go awry and God wreaks his vengeance on him and his wife as their daughter, now aged 17, goes off with one of her father’s prostitutes, Manke (Marin Hinkle), with whom she has been having a lesbian affair.
Problems begin with Leibman’s performance, which is far too coarse. It’s impossible to feel for this rough character or to believe that he really loves his “angelic” daughter and genuinely plans to go straight. Certainly the scene in which Leibman’s Jack speaks to God via the Torah he’s bought is totally unbelievable.
Venora and Breckenridge fare somewhat better, though at times Venora doesn’t project clearly enough to overcome the theater’s tricky acoustics.
The rest of the cast tries honestly, but without ever truly coming to terms with characters who are so foreign to them. Jenny Bacon, for instance, looks altogether too elegant and well-bred as prostitute Hindl who at one point tells her ex-boyfriend Shloyme (Bruce MacVittie) — he wants her to move to the brothel he plans to open — that he’s “like the clap, just when you think you’ve got rid of it. . .”
Neil Patel’s set begins with a front scrim printed with a black and white photograph of the Lower East Side in the ’20s. Behind it is a composite set of two floors of a tenement: the brothel on the street level, the Chapman family living above it (Rivkele visits Manke secretly by climbing down the fire escape). Trouble is, it’s too busy and cramped, particularly the upstairs.
According to the WTF program notes, “God of Vengeance” in its original version “is safely ensconced in the canon of Yiddish drama.” Although director Gordon Edelstein previously staged Margulies’ version at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theater, it is still far less safe in English.