The production’s complete ensemble of seven actors (along with two composer-musicians, who also perform) have appeared in four productions over the course of two years. Playwright Paula Vogel has been developing the project for seven. And director Rebecca Taichman has been working on it for two decades.
It’s a gestation process — remarkably long and characterized by consistent ensemble work — that seems far more common to European repertory companies than to the commercial wilds of Broadway. It’s also the thing that the producers and creatives behind the $3.5 million production hope will draw attention to the show in a crowded season, without the aid of a big-name movie star on the marquee.
“It’s a very challenging play to put on Broadway,” admitted Daryl Roth, who leads the producing team alongside Elizabeth I. McCann and Cody Lassen. “I’m not blind to that, but I thought that if we pulled any one actor out of this cast, it might unravel.”
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“Indecent,” which opens tonight at Broadway’s Cort Theater, chronicles the largely forgotten story of Sholem Asch’s 1907 play “God of Vengeance,” which became a staple of the Yiddish theater canon but sparked so much controversy in its 1923 English language premiere on Broadway that its cast was dragged to court and charged with obscenity. Among the elements deemed most offensive: The play’s sensitive depiction of the romance between a teenage girl and a female prostitute.
Taichman, the Off Broadway regular (“How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” “Familiar”) who makes her Broadway debut with “Indecent,” first came across Asch’s play in 1997, as a first year grad student at Yale School of Drama. It sparked the idea of her senior thesis, a docu-drama recreating the obscenity trial a la “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” called “The People vs. The God of Vengeance.”
It’s what Taichman calls her “first failed attempt” at telling the story behind “The God of Vengeance.” After she graduated from Yale in 2000, she kept the still-nascent idea in the portfolio of projects she would pitch to theaters around the country.
“I never really stopped working on it,” said the director, sitting in the house of the Cort between performances on a recent matinee day. “I just felt that it was a really important memory to caretake, this extraordinary glimpse into a moment in New York and in American and Jewish history. What happened was so singular and important, and instructive and useful for us now.”
About a decade after Taichman graduated, the Oregon Shakespeare Company commissioned Taichman for “Indecent” as part of its American Revolutions initiative (the same program that has yielded Tony winner “All the Way” and the current Pulitzer-winning Broadway title “Sweat”). Taichman knew she needed a writer, and a former teacher suggested she call Vogel, the Pulitzer winner (“How I Learned to Drive”) also making her Broadway debut with “Indecent.”
Vogel, it turned out, had discovered Asch’s play as a college student some 20 years before Taichman first read it, and it had stuck with her.
“There’s a visibility problem for lesbians in literature and dramatic literature, and it was a huge challenge, and very emotionally resonant for me as an older woman, to try and write something that would allow these women and these characters to be more visible,” Vogel said, referring to the lovers in “God of Vengeance” and the women who played them. “Particularly now, at this moment in time when we have had a significant cultural shift in terms of sexuality, but while it’s still endangered.”
Development, supported by the commission from OSF and one Vogel had gotten from Yale for a new play, continued in a MacDowell Colony fellowship and then at the Sundance Theater Lab in 2013. During those early days, it had become clear to the creatives that they were interested in taking a nontraditional, lyrical approach to the subject, tightly weaving in klezmer music and elements of dance in collaboration with a troupe of actors and the two composer-musicians (Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva) who would write music as scenes developed in the rehearsal room. (A third musician also performs in the full production’s ensemble.)
“I didn’t come with a concept,” Taichman said. “It was clear that the piece needed to be driven by an emotional logic and instinct, and the only way we could let that happen was to all be in the room together, feeling our way through.”
The creative team and its nonprofit backers devised a flight plan for the 2015-16 season that would see “Indecent” launch at Yale Rep, further develop in a run at La Jolla Playhouse and finally land at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater. The three-stop trajectory allowed creatives to tinker and rethink in two full productions before national press checked out the show in New York.
Actor Richard Topol, who plays the loyal stage manager Lemml in “Indecent,” remembers that multi-pronged development process as a collaborative exercise in group-think exploration and problem solving. “Those rehearsals were really challenging, and really frustrating sometimes,” he said. “We rechoreographed those dances 72 times each.”
“Sometimes it led to glorious chaos, and sometimes it led to totally frustrating chaos,” Taichman acknowledges. “It was an extreme process.”
But she, Topol and Vogel all speak fondly of it, and attribute the strong ensemble acting to the cast’s long collaboration. The playwright describes feeding off the work of the actors to fuel her own writing, cutting scenes when a choreographed dance moment seemed enough, or adding dialogue when an actor’s growing idea of a character demanded it. “A lot of these scenes and characters were tailor made for this specific company,” she said.
The actors’ increased creative involvement also led to an unusual sense of investment, which in turn reinforced their commitment to the project. “There are so many moments that are not necessarily textual but are still part of the piece, and certainly very powerful, that we helped figure out,” said Topol, who filmed a sizable role in the National Geographic series “Genius” between the Vineyard production of “Indecent” and its Broadway run. “I feel an ownership of those moments.”
Roth, who was a producer on Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer winner “How I Learned to Drive,” saw the final product at the Vineyard and teamed with McCann, with whom she’d produced Edward Albee plays like “Three Tall Women,” and Vineyard board member Lassen for a Broadway transfer. Powered by rave reviews from the Off Broadway run, the trio eventually managed to secure the Cort in a jam-packed season.
As with both “Sweat” and “Oslo” — two other plays that recently opened on Broadway after Off Broadway successes — the 2016 election and the Trump administration have seemed to bring added urgency to “Indecent,” the events of which can be seen as the symptoms of censorship, homophobia and anti-immigration sentiment.
“It’s devastating to me how resonant the play has become,” Taichman said. “I wish it were less relevant.”