So much happens in the course of the riveting if somewhat jarring new production of Sholom Asch’s "God of Vengeance," newly translated from the Yiddish by Caraid O’Brien, that it’s hard to take it all in during one sitting. The tale of a Jewish pimp and a former prostitute who run a shtetl whorehouse while raising a perfectly respectable girl in the house upstairs is extraordinarily rich, the variety and tragedy of the characters suggesting, both in theme and quality, the novels of Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. As in Zola’s influential series of novels on the dissolute Rougon-Macquart family, "God of Vengeance" asks if God is indeed cruel if children are punished for the sins of their parents.
The principal characters are the pimp-cum-bourgeois gentleman Yankl Shapshovitch (Mark Greenfield), his wife Soreh (Andrea Darriau) and their teenage daughter, Rivkeleh (Vered Hankin), none of whom get along very well. A rival pimp, Shlomo (Corey Carthew), and his head prostitute, Hindl (Caraid O’Brien) make fun of the middle-class pretensions of Yankl, while coveting his newfound status. Hindl drives home the contradictions in this still Jewish-centered world when she demands that Shlomo promise to marry her, "like you promised Kaddish for your father."
The action begins when Yankl throws a party at his house to celebrate a Torah he has commissioned. He freely admits having no interest in Torah study. Instead, he believes the advice of the scheming Reb Eli (David Pincus), who swears the Holy Book will protect his daughter from his sins. Needless to say, the Torah magic doesn’t exactly work. And as the main characters move more forcefully into proper society (Yankl and Soreh plan a traditional wedding for Rivkeleh while Shlomo and Hindl’s expect to get married and start a whorehouse) the hypocrisy on which they stand begins to sink.
"God of Vengeance" was a scandal since it premiered in Berlin in 1910, followed by Yiddish and English productions in New York in the early 1920s. The play incensed the Jewish community, which saw it as deeply flawed morally as well as an embarrassment, a shande far di goyim. The English production was closed down for obscenity on the basis of a love scene (beautifully portrayed in this production) between Rivkeleh and Manke (Elizabeth Gondek), one of the prostitutes. The play is still somewhat shocking, although mostly because much of the action happens with a Torah onstage. Few contemporary audiences would find it incredible that a woman might escape an arranged marriage to someone she despised for a life in a brothel, or that a community leader like Reb Eli would turn a blind eye to Yankl’s business in order to secure funds for the local yeshiva.
Part of what makes this production compelling is the venue. Performing on the top floor of Times Square’s world-famous Show World porn emporium, on a stage formerly used by exotic dancers, works brilliantly as a setting. The seediness of the characters, the absurdity of their dreams of respectability, their desire to separate the "respectable house" upstairs from the brothel downstairs is given greater poignancy by the simple fact that, more or less, there is a brothel downstairs.
But to say that the play sails on the strength of the venue is selling the production short. Translator Caraid O’Brien (who grew up in Ireland and learned Yiddish in college), who plays Hindl with great verve and intelligence, has made the play feel accessible and modern while keeping its religious ideas and European Yiddish flavor intact. Director Aaron Beall has used the very small and elongated space to great effect, alternating the placement of actors on and off stage to give the production immediacy and force. If there is a problem with this approach, it is the magnification of each actor’s performance, and with 15 or so actors, some performances (or combinations) fall short more visibly than they otherwise would. There are times when the tumult on stage feels a bit like a high school production in a crowded gym.
The fact that some actors get the Yiddish accents right and some don’t is occasionally jarring, but the strategic use of Yiddish words gives the play a very Jewish feel without making it difficult to understand. Mark Greenfield’s outsized presence gives Yankl a maniacal energy, which is balanced by the intermittently engaging Andrea Darriau, who seems more effective when she is seductive instead of shrill. The petite Vered Hankin, playing Rivkeleh, has fewer substantial lines than many other characters, but does a fine job of symbolizing the innocent and glowing purity that everyone else so desperately desires. Her love scenes with Manke, played by the taller Elizabeth Gondek, beautifully capture the transition between innocence and experience. David Pincus is very fine as the intermediary Reb Eli, who attempts to bridge the lower world of depravity with the higher world of Torah by connecting Yankl both with the shul and a suitor for his daughter. Performances of Sholom Asch’s "God of Vengeance" take place at the Nada Show World Theater, 675 8th Ave., Manhattan. Wed., Thurs., Sat. at 8pm; Sun. at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. $15. (800) 965-4827 or www.ticketweb.com or www.purepop.org.