Theatre Review: “Indecent”
By Kevin M. O’Toole
In 1923, Polish playwright Sholem Asch’s first dramatic work, “The God of Vengeance,” acclaimed throughout Europe and now translated from Yiddish to English, was closed after a single Broadway performance of a watered-down version, its entire cast of actors arrested and eventually convicted for indecency. Lives and careers were ruined.
“Indecent” is playwright Paula Vogel’s 2016 dramatization of how “The God of Vengeance” came to be, and attempts to address why so many risked so much for their art. Last Friday’s preview performance of Weston Playhouse Theatre Company’s production of this Tony Award-winning play was powerful, insightful, moving and cathartic.
“The God of Vengeance” is set in the home of the family patriarch, who operates a brothel in the basement of the residence ostensibly so that his daughter could enjoy another, better life. After he discovers that his daughter has fallen in love with one of his prostitutes, he denounces his daughter, and his Torah, and sentences her to join the others down below “on their backs and on their knees.”
Playwright Vogel begins “Indecent” with a scene of a table reading of Asch’s work. Painting a very human portrait of homosexual love and arguably, showing Jews in an unfavorable light, “The God of Vengeance” was, for many of those present, simply too much. As Asch, Brian Bock initially gave the playwright an infectious enthusiasm and then later, when Asch, who had since seen the atrocities of the Warsaw Ghetto firsthand, a weariness when “The God of Vengeance” was attacked as something abhorrent.
Forrest Malloy was stirring as Lemml, a friend of a friend at that initial table reading, who even as a theatrical tyro, recognized the poetry and emotion of Asch’s play. It is Lemml who remains loyal to “The God of Vengeance” even after Asch refuses to testify in defense of its cast at the criminal trial, and Lemml who returns to a Poland that persecutes Jews.
Molly Carden and Whitney Maris Brown, as the young ingenue Reina and older, more seasoned performer, Deine, were breathtaking as lovers presented with the opportunity to show that love through their characters in Asch’s play. Carden’s performance, in particular, was heartbreaking when Reina learns she has been fired because of her inability to speak English well, and a hoot as Carden assumed the role of Virginia McFadden, Reina’s Gentile replacement.
Every member of the talented ensemble assumed several roles. Christopher McFarland was particularly convincing as New York Rabbi Joseph Silverman, who denounces the production of “The God of Vengeance” as harmful to Jews, and helps to initiate the play’s closure and its actors’ arrests. Marcus Neville offered a nuanced portrayal of the play’s director, Rudolph Schildkraut, and as the elderly Asch, who, years later, rebuffs the efforts of a Yale graduate student to revive “The God of Vengeance.” Gordana Rashovich rounded out the cast, also portraying a myriad of characters, including the elderly wife of Sholem Asch.
Katie Rose McLaughlin’s inventive choreography and the bare bones staging by Scenic Designer Kimie Nishikawa served the narrative well, as did the frequent use of an overhead projector that, among other things, communicated when characters were speaking in English or German or Yiddish.
Director Jordan Fein’s election to weave the three musicians, (Ira Khonen Temple on accordion, Zoe Aqua on violin and mandolin, and Jason Gresl on clarinet), into each scene made their presence vital and seamless. The staging of the final scene of Asch’s play, repeated verbatim several times during the course of “Indecent,” was increasingly gripping.
“Indecent” marks an altogether fitting final installment of WPTC’s five-year commitment to present works by American Masters. In addition to public performances, it will be presented to students in area schools during its run. “Indecent” celebrates the human spirit and challenges its audiences to remember and, hopefully, learn.
Performances of “Indecent,” which, at 100 minutes, is presented without intermission, continue through October 20 at Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm, just a stone’s throw north on Route 100 from Weston Village. For ticket information, call the WPTC box office at (802) 824-5288 or visit its website at www.westonplayhouse.org.