It scandalized audiences with its lurid tale of greed and forbidden love. When Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance” opened on Broadway In 1923, it caused such a furor that the entire cast was thrown in jail. Now the play returns in a new production at the Marvell Rep, as part of a series of plays that were “banned or burned” at some point in their production history. Directed by Lenny Leibowitz, the play runs through the end of the month in Midtown.
Translated by Joseph Landis, “God of Vengeance” centers on a Polish Jewish brothel keeper, Yankl Chapchovich (Sam Tsoutsouvas, who played the title role in the company’s production last winter of Arthur Schnitzler’s “Professor Bernhardi”), who seeks to redeem himself from his sinful career by sponsoring the writing of a new Torah scroll and marrying his daughter, Rivkele (Leanne Agmon), to a yeshiva student. But the daughter has other plans; she has fallen in love with one of the girls in his father’s employ, which leads to explosive consequences when her father discovers the lesbian relationship.
Asch was a prolific playwright, novelist and journalist who spent time in the Warsaw underworld before immigrating to the United States shortly before the First World War. A former rabbinical student who turned against what he viewed as the hypocrisy of religious orthodoxy, Asch penned “God of Vengeance” (“Got Fun Nekome” in Yiddish) in 1907. The play was produced in New York at the Provincetown Theatre in Greenwich Village and at a number of Yiddish theaters on the Lower East Side.
But when it was translated into English and staged on Broadway, starring the great Yiddish actor Morris Carnovsky as Yankl, “God of Vengeance” ran into trouble. The play drew the ire of Rabbi Joseph Silverman of Temple Emanu-El, who found the play pornographic. The producer, manager and cast were hauled into court, where the judge took particular umbrage at what he called the play’s “desecration of the sacred scrolls of the Torah.”
In an interview, Leibowitz told The Jewish Week that the play is about the “repudiation of moral schizophrenia,” as shown in Yankl’s attempts to “compartmentalize” his business and personal relationships. Leibowitz chose the old-style Landis translation over a newer one by playwright Donald Margulies, which moved the action to 1920s New York, because he finds greater potency in what he called the play’s “rough-and-tumble shtetl setting.”
Theater scholar Caraid O’Brien is an expert on the play; she translated and adapted it in 1999 for an eyebrow-raising production at Show World, a porn emporium in Times Square. She said that the play shows the limited opportunities that were available to the Jewish poor. Yankl, she said, “tries to buy not just respectability, but love and acceptance. He finds out how few options there are to embrace a different kind of world.”
“God of Vengeance” runs through Oct. 28 at the TBG Theatre, 312 W. 36th St. For tickets, $25, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.marvellrep.com.