If ever a play, more than a century after its premiere, could be said to be hot, it is Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance.” The infamous 1907 drama is about a Polish Jewish brothel owner’s last-ditch bid for respectability. He commissions a Torah scroll for his daughter’s future dowry, a plan that goes disastrously awry when she falls in love with one of the female prostitutes in his employ.
Staged numerous times in New York over just the past several years, including last month in its original language at the New Yiddish Rep, the play continues to exert a fascinating grip. It is the enduring legacy of “God of Vengeance” that comes to the fore in Paula Vogel’s new play, “Indecent,” which ran Off-Broadway last year at the Vineyard Theater and has now transferred to Broadway, it is the enduring legacy of “Indecent,” in its many productions throughout the world, that comes to the fore. By staging the production history of “God of Vengeance” the play rather than the play itself, “Indecent” makes a powerful case that the ghosts of every previous version of a play inhabit each production that we see.
“Indecent” thus marks the welcome, long overdue Broadway debut of Paula Vogel, whose harrowing, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “How I Learned to Drive,” which is about the sexual abuse of a teenage girl by her uncle, premiered at the Vineyard in 1997.
Indeed, ghosts are a major underlying theme of “Indecent,” which is directed, quite brilliantly, by Rebecca Taichman, who first conceived of the piece and then co-created it with Vogel. The stage is entirely bare, with a brick wall exposed at the back of the theater. As the audience members enter, they see the actors reclining against it, staring back at them. As the play commences, the actors, who play members of a spectral theatrical troupe, arise and pour sand, symbolizing ashes, out of their sleeves and pockets.
It’s a spectacular beginning to an eye-catching production that is brilliantly choreographed by David Dorfman. As the play progresses, the performers, some of whom play musical instruments (accordion, violin and clarinet), frequently cavort around the stage with arms stretched high in stylized gestures that evoke the life of the shtetl.
“Indecent” then moves chronologically forward, beginning with the playwright and his wife celebrating the sexy new play that he has written, and then having a first reading in the home of the celebrated Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz (Tom Nelis). The road is a bumpy one; Peretz and his circle are scandalized both by the play’s focus on prostitution and by its lesbian theme, both of which they fear will elicit anti-Semitic reactions. While Peretz fears the consequences of presenting Jews as anything other than paragons of virtue, Asch insists on verisimilitude in treating Jewish life — as he puts it, “our streets, our gutter, our desire.”
Only because Lemml (Richard Topol), a poor tailor from the provinces, who has never seen a play, becomes an indefatigable champion of Asch’s work, “God of Vengeance” finally reaches the stage. It plays throughout Europe and Russia, as well as in New York, before being translated into English and playing both in downtown New York and then on Broadway in 1922, starring Joseph Schildkraut (Nelis), who had also played it in Berlin; it was the Broadway production that was shut down by the authorities for obscenity. “Indecent” manages to resurrect each of these productions by showing either an entire scene or, in many cases, just the final tableau, in which the enraged brothel owner, feeling utterly betrayed, dispatches his wife and daughter back to the brothel and prepares to hurl the Torah to the floor.
In addition to supertitles in both Yiddish and English on the back wall, music helps the audience make the transition from one time period to another. (The performer-musicians include some of the city’s better-know Jewish players such as Matt Darriau and Uri Sharlin.) In addition to two dozen themes newly composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, the production makes use of a number of vigorous tunes, ranging from the socialist anthem “Ale Brider” (We Are All Brothers) to a sexy Berlin cabaret number to the pop song “Bay Mir Bist Du Sheyn” (You Are Beautiful To Me).
The performances in “Indecent” are uniformly excellent. The actors all change roles multiple times on stage in order to portray the play’s journey through history. In one especially memorable sequence, an actor takes the Torah from the brother owner’s hands as the actors of the Broadway production are arrested on obscenity charges; the same actor transforms into Rabbi Joseph Silverman at Temple Emanu-El, giving a sermon against the play. (My only quibble: It seemed odd that the rabbi was clad in a tallit and kipa, given that the Reform movement had abandoned traditional Jewish dress decades earlier.)
The most stirring moments in the production are the most surprising and visually stunning ones. When the court issues its ruling against the performers of “God of Vengeance,” the words of the ruling are projected not just on the back wall, but on the bodies of the performers as well. The performers return to dust at the end of the play, again showering ashes from their garments as they perform for one last time in the attic of a building in the Lodz Ghetto.
“Indecent” ends with a spectacular on-stage rainstorm, with Rifkele and Manke finally united in sweet sexual release, defeating all the efforts that have been made to destroy their love. (Vogel, who first read “God of Vengeance” while an undergraduate at Cornell, when she was herself coming out of the closet, noted in an essay in the playbill that she views the love scene between the two young women in Asch’s play as one that “accorded their love the pure desire of Romeo and Juliet on the balcony.”) It’s a perfect send-off for the audience as well, breaking the spell of a haunting play that deserves to be as widely seen throughout the world as “God of Vengeance” was.
“Indecent” runs through Sept. 10 at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. Performances are Tuesday and Thursday evenings at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. Matinees are on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m. For tickets, $39-$129, call (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.