Those of us who frequent the theater do not need to be convinced of this art form’s importance. But there are some stories that really drive this home, emphasizing the true power of theater, particularly when the world wants to prevent a story from being told. Indecent, a play by Pulitzer-winner Paula Vogel that debuted on Broadway in 2017, opened last weekend at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in a co-production with Huntington Theater Company. It tells the story of the controversy surrounding the play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, which was briefly performed on Broadway in 1923, and the great bravery of those involved in making it happen.
Directed by Rebecca Taichman, who won the Tony for her work on this show in 2017, Indecent features a cast of seven, nearly all of whom play many roles, as well as three onstage musicians. Projections (Tal Yarden) offer context and inform the audience when the characters are speaking in Yiddish versus English, and music (Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva) is heavily featured throughout the show. The story begins in 1906, when Asch (Joby Earle), a Polish and Jewish writer experimenting with the art of playwriting, writes God of Vengeance. His wife, Madje (Adina Verson) encourages him to share it, and he puts together a reading at a local salon. The reactions are polarizing—a major storyline involves two women, a prostitute and the daughter of the brothel’s owner, falling in love. In addition to concern over the lesbian relationship, many are worried a story about prostitutes will promote anti-Semitism.
Nevertheless, Asch finds enough supporters, including a tailor, Lemml (Richard Topol), who is deeply moved by the piece and becomes its stage manager. The play is performed across Europe and eventually off-off-Broadway in New York, still in Yiddish, to decent success. When the opportunity for a Broadway run arises, it is translated into English and the producers demand Asch make some changes. Unfortunately, Asch speaks so little English that he signs off without understanding the producers in fact removed the love story between the two women. When the play debuts, the entire cast is arrested for obscenity.
The highlights of this production are Taichman’s inspired, nuanced direction as well as the collective performance of the ensemble (rounded out by Harry Groener, Mimi Lieber, and Steven Rattazzi), who must work seamlessly as a unit to pull off this tale. Whether or not you have prior knowledge of God of Vengeance and the controversy surrounding it, the story is fascinating, and unfortunately feels relevant today, in a world where xenophobia, homophobia, and fear are still far too present. Appropriately for a story that celebrates the power of theater, the staging is rather magical, with a few striking visual moments that actually drew gasps from the audience. Vogel’s script is infused with humor in all the right places, such as during a montage of the cast performing the play’s final moments across Europe over the course of several years, with each repetition more over-the-top than the last as the actors sink deeper into their characters. After hearing about the “rain scene” between Menke (Elizabeth A. Davis) and Rifkele (Verson), a scene often described as rivaling the balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet in its romanticism, we finally see it at the end, and it is quite an unforgettable moment. Overall, this is important theater that sheds light on why we make theater in the first place, and why supporting it is so important, especially in difficult times.
Indecent runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through July 7th. The running time is one hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.