×

Off Broadway Review: ‘Indecent’ by Paula Vogel

With:
Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Richard Topol, Adina Verson. With Mike Cohen, Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva.

Here’s a sure bet for the regional theater circuit — a play about a play that shocked Broadway and landed both the show’s producer and its leading man in jail. “Indecent” is what critics called the 1922 production of “The God of Vengeance” when this Yiddish play by Sholem Asch moved uptown from the Village.  “Indecent,” now playing at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater, is also the name Paula Vogel has given the riveting backstage drama she’s written (with director Rebecca Taichman) about the intertwined lives of an acting company and the roles they played in this scandalous production.

Despite its sordid plot — about a respectable family that builds a flourishing business from the brothel they operate in their basement — no eyebrows were raised when “Gott fun Nekoma” was performed by the Jewish acting troupe that brought the Yiddish play to New York. But when Asch’s drama was translated into English as “The God of Vengeance” and moved uptown from the Provincetown Playhouse to Broadway in 1922, even a worldly theater critic like Heywood Broun was made to feel “a little sick.”

Popular on Variety

It wasn’t the brothel scenes that disturbed critics, shocked audiences and dragged the show’s producer and leading man into an obscenity trial. There were plenty of titillating so-called “brothel plays” in New York in those days. It was the enthusiastic (and unrepentant) lesbian romance between the daughter of the brothel owner and one of his working girls that shocked uptown audiences.

Vogel’s layered text puts that infamous 1922 production of “God of Vengeance” in the broadest possible context. So while we don’t actually see the play performed, we’re left with a vivid impression of the drama, beginning with its origins in Warsaw in 1906. We’re also made to feel the powerful impact of a critical lesbian love scene, played in the rain with singular grace by the alluring Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson. (In translation, it’s an austerely beautiful scene.)

Thanks to Taichman’s impressionistic direction and David Dorfman’s stylized choreography, a troupe of long-slumbering Yiddish actors rise from the ashes and stiffly come to life to play their parts in this drama. (Credit Christopher Akerlind for the eerie lighting design that has this phantom troupe suspended somewhere beyond time and space.)

Once animated, the company ceremonially enacts the origins of the play: its creation by neophyte playwright Sholem Asch (Max Gordon Moore), the acquisition of a troupe of professional actors (headed by the excellent Tom Nelis), and even the services of an inexperienced but eager stage manager (the outstanding Richard Topol).

But “The God of Vengeance” was not an easy sell to these seasoned Yiddish theater professionals. Asch makes a strong case for the merits of his play: “We need plays in Yiddish that are universal!” he insists. But even within the company there are arguments about fueling anti-Semitism by depicting Jews as prostitutes and pimps.

This is not a linear production, so scenes in real time bleed into times past and future, and backstage scenes echo scenes within the play. But from time to time the audience can’t help but apply its own knowledge — of the ominous threat of Hitler’s gathering power in Germany, for example — to scenes in which the company calmly discusses whether to bring their successful play to the United States.

We already know the outcome of their professional arguments. But such is the tension of the production, you want to stand up and warn this brave little troupe to catch that ship before it sails.

Off Broadway Review: 'Indecent' by Paula Vogel

Vineyard Theater; 125 seats; $79 top. Opened May 17, 2016. Reviewed May 12. Running time: ONE HOUR, 40 MIN.

Production: A Vineyard Theater Company presentation, in association with La Jolla Playhouse and Yale Repertory Theater, of a play in one act created by Paula Vogel with Rebecca Taichman, written by Paula Vogel.

Creative: Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Choreography by David Dorfman. Sets, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Matt Hubbs ; projections, Tal Yarden; composers & music directors, Lisa Gutkin & Aaron Halva; production stage manager, Terri K. Kohler.

Cast: Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Richard Topol, Adina Verson. With Mike Cohen, Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva.

More Legit

  • Grand Horizons review

    'Grand Horizons': Theater Review

    Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, as you surely must have: A nice, all-American family is in the process of breaking up and trying to make this sad state of affairs seem funny in Bess Wohl’s Broadway outing “Grand Horizons.” After 50 years of marriage, Nancy (the ever-elegant Jane Alexander) and Bill (the [...]

  • Uncle Vanya review

    'Uncle Vanya': Theater Review

    Director Ian Rickson has had success with Chekhov in the past. His exquisitely balanced, tragicomic production of “The Seagull” (2007 in London, 2008 on Broadway) was well-nigh flawless with, among others, Kristin Scott Thomas as painfully vulnerable as she was startlingly funny. Sadly, with his production of “Uncle Vanya,” despite felicities in the casting, lightning [...]

  • The Welkin review

    'The Welkin': Theater Review

    A life hanging perilously in the balance of charged-up, polarized opinions: This courtroom drama could easily have been titled “Twelve Angry Women.” But playwright Lucy Kirkwood (“Chimerica,” “The Children”) is far too strong and imaginative a writer for so hand-me-down a cliché. Instead she opts for “The Welkin,” an old English term for the vault [...]

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme

    Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and 'Freestyle Love Supreme' in Exclusive Clip From Sundance Documentary

    Before turning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” into musical phenomenons, Lin-Manuel Miranda could have been found on stage, spouting off-the-cuff rhymes with his improv group, “Freestyle Love Supreme.” After performing across the globe, the troupe — founded 15 years ago by Miranda, his frequent collaborator Thomas Kail and emcee Anthony Veneziale — made its Broadway [...]

  • Ariana Grande 7 Rings

    Rodgers & Hammerstein Are Having a Moment Thanks to Ariana Grande, 'Oklahoma!'

    Jaws dropped when it was revealed that the late musical theater titans Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were granted 90% of the songwriting royalties on “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande’s 2019 No. 1 hit. The dominant motif of Grande’s song is taken from “My Favorite Things,” the cornerstone of R&H’s 1959 musical “The Sound of [...]

  • A Soldiers Play review

    'A Soldier's Play': Theater Review

    Now, that’s what I call a play! Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play,” now being revived on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, packs plenty of dramatic tension into smoldering issues of racial justice and injustice, military honor and dishonor, and the solemn struggle to balance their harrowing demands on characters who are only [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content