Hugh Kennedy as Sholem Asch with Miriam Schwartz playing Chana, his wife in Indecent.
photo by dan norman
Amid the early 20th century, when Yiddish theater was in its heyday around the world, Sholem Asch’s 1907 The God of Vengeance seemed to pluck some of the most controversial topics it could find—Jewish brothels, lesbian romances and the destruction of the Torah—and put them all together. The play shone brightly in Europe only to be shot down shortly after its Broadway premiere on charges of obscenity reported by a highly regarded New York rabbi. The production crew was found guilty. More than 90 years later, Paula Vogel’s play Indecent tells the story of Asch’s play—not only its controversy and its trial, but the love and faith of those who performed in it.
The Guthrie is the first theater to perform Indecent since its Broadway debut in 2017, and the cast and ensemble, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg, do a magnificent job. Vogel wrote the script to have one narrator at the beginning, Lemml, explain how the six other actors and three musicians on stage will transition between more than 40 roles to tell the story of Sholem Asch’s only play. Soon, we plunge into the story, where a young Asch (Hugh Kennedy) watches nervously as his wife (Miriam Schwartz) becomes the first person in the world to read The God of Vengeance.
Through “Blinks in Time” meted out by screen projections and sound cues that splice the play into skips of a stone across the pond, the ensemble takes us through more than half a century of the play’s development, world tour, struggles and its tenacity—for the play seems to have a living force—to keep going despite the changing tides of World War II. Vogel does her best to keep us grounded by dropping names every scene, and cues from the set overlays and ensemble help. Really, it is perhaps the mix of all these little scenes that make the scenes where we see the characters again so meaningful. We see how time has changed them more strongly because for us, it is not a gradual transition or an unnoticed readjustment taking place over time. It is a stark contrast to whom they were before.
There are so many things to say about the cast of Indecent, but here are two: Ben Cherry, who plays a wide-eyed and bumbling Lemml, transforms into a punch-line-ready fool who never sees the faults in his heroes into someone we believe in and mourn for, into someone who checks our own jaded views and reminds us why we shouldn’t be afraid to fully put our soul into something. Gisela Chípe and Miriam Schwartz are breathtaking together and apart, and for how beautiful The God of Vengeance’s infamous rain scene is, their love rings truest outside of it, when Schwartz’s character tells Chípe’s to come home.
In my mind, Indecent is a large tome: well-worn, with actors’ notes scribbled in ink on the margins and each dog-eared page and tear marked with a dirty, smudged fingerprint.
There is a weariness on stage as the company rises up from ashes in a dilapidated theater, the detritus blending in with forgotten joys, courtesy of scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado. However, once you wipe away the dust, once Lemml moves past a note of foreboding melancholy into a rush of pure adoration for Asch’s play, you can see the warmth of the story glow and unfurl itself into steel and the patter of rain, green meadows and covered mirrors.
You can almost picture Vogel’s script in your hands, and as you rifle through its pages, the themes of discrimination, patriotism, language, censorship, acceptance, truth, ownership and more tumble over each other to burst out in a mere one hour and 40 minutes.
Sometimes it seems like too many ideas. Asch’s life-changing trip to Lithuania and the dynamics of language are two things that seem skimmed over at times, and while some of the musical interludes work—“Wiegala” was all the more perfect and frustrating for being the only one not to have translations—some take you out of the world the ensemble has made. Instead of holding onto a theme and feeling its color stream through your fingers, you are outside of it all as the years in the play rush by. You catch glimpses here and there but never being able to flesh them out into the nuances the richness of script and performance seems to promise.
But then you come to the ending—not the one you were expecting due to its World War II years, but the one after. In those last minutes, you feel, if not know in words, what the play has been trying to say about The God of Vengeance‘s creation. Kennedy draws the audience in a full circle, and then, well … I don’t want to give away too much. Just know as the stage goes dark, there will be a part of you that never wants the yearning feeling that rested in your chest to go away.