Paula Vogel has made a career of tackling uncomfortable topics. The Maryland playwright won a Pulitzer in 1998 for “How I Learned to Drive,” which centers on pedophilia and incest. Other works put AIDS, pornography and domestic violence on Vogel’s stage.
With “Indecent,” co-created by Rebecca Taichman, Vogel turns her attention to a controversial play from an earlier time: “The God of Vengeance,” which debuted in 1906.
“Indecent” tells the true story of the play’s struggles and successes in Europe and then New York, wrapping in issues of artistic freedom, anti-Semitism and homophobia. It asks if there’s a price too high to pay for artistic freedom, and whether it’s OK to paint a less-than-flattering portrait of your own people, particularly if they’re already stigmatized.
Written by Polish-Jewish novelist and playwright Sholem Asch, “The God of Vengeance” appears to be a rather soapy story of an Orthodox rabbi who runs a brothel, and his daughter who falls in love with one of the prostitutes. The play brought the first lesbian kiss to Broadway in 1923, resulting in obscenity convictions for the entire cast.
It’s easy to see why Vogel, who is both Jewish and gay herself, was inspired to dust off this piece of theatrical history. In fact, one of the first scenes shows the actors almost rousing from slumber–or death–and dusting themselves off. The movement has an uncomfortable double meaning, showing history coming to life, while also evoking the embers of the Holocaust.
There are plenty of other thought-provoking moments in “Indecent,” which follows “Vengeance” through history, from 1906 to after World War II, and from Eastern Europe to New York and then back.
But the script is hampered by Vogel’s choice of making “Vengeance” the focus, instead of the complex human beings who wrote, performed and responded to that particular work of controversial art. With 10 actors in the cast and most playing multiple roles, there’s little opportunity for the audience to connect with any particular character.
Things happen–a love affair develops between two women in the play, then one is replaced because she can’t learn her lines in English. The play moves from a Yiddish theater to Broadway.
For all its action, “Indecent,” at an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, has surprisingly little to say about the play at the center of its story. We see the same scenes again and again: the famed lesbian seduction in the rain, and the dramatic final scene, of the patriarch throwing a Torah and demanding that his wife and daughter work in his whorehouse.
But it’s unclear why “The God of Vengeance” was popular. Did audiences take it seriously, or did they flock to the play because they were titillated? The twin deplorables of homophobia and anti-Semitism are also hard to unravel.
“Vengeance,” from what we can see, celebrates lesbian love in a truly open and unabashed way, and this representation means a lot to the actors portraying those scenes. The resulting obscenity convictions seem, to our modern sensibilities, just plain wrong.
The anti-Semitism is more complicated. In real life, some Jewish newspapers at the time criticized the play when it moved from a Yiddish theater to Broadway, saying it was a mistake for Jews to show a less-than-pious side to a gentile audience. “Indecent’s” answer is that telling stories, especially difficult ones, is an essential human act. But is that true even if a writer trivializes his culture for the amusement of others?
Baltimore Center Stage, in a partnership with Arena Stage of Washington, D.C. and Kansas City Repertory Theater, brings its usual stellar production values to “Indecent.” The set design is lovely, managing to be both simple and clever, using small tweaks to create entirely different scenes.
To help the audience keep track of what’s going on, “Indecent” relies on subtitles that are projected onto the beams and walls of the set, telling us whether we’re in Berlin or on Broadway, what year we’ve jumped to, and if the actors are speaking English or Yiddish.
The score, directed by Alexander Sovronsky, who also plays several roles on stage, evokes the music of the times and places depicted in the play, from the klezmer music of the Jewish ghettos to the cabaret songs of Berlin.
“Indecent” is Vogel’s fourth Center Stage production, and her first play to appear on Broadway, where it earned respectful reviews in 2017.
In one of the final scenes, an amateur band of literally starving actors is performing the play in a Warsaw attic, an act of artistic subterfuge as the flames of the Holocaust lick closer. It’s a moving, though not entirely earned, testament to the power of art in the bleakest of circumstances.
“Indecent” is at Baltimore Center Stage through March 31.