Thirty-seven years ago I had a memorable night at the Cort Theatre. I went with my mother to the opening night of Tennessee Williams’ Clothes for a Summer Hotel, starring Geraldine Page. It wasn’t a great play and it closed several days later, but it was worth seeing Page as Zelda Fitzgerald. Best of all, Williams was sitting in a box and took a bow after the performance. Reading his plays, especially The Glass Menagerie, had made me love the theater.
I recently had another memorable night at the Cort. I saw a preview of Paula Vogel’s Indecent. Vogel was there, though not sitting in a box. The play doesn’t star anyone famous, and the subject matter—a Yiddish play that caused an obscenity trial in 1923—didn’t strike me as particularly exciting. But Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman have crafted a stirring, heartfelt piece of theater that deserves to find an audience.
The play at the center of Indecent is God of Vengeance. It was written in Yiddish by Sholem Asch in 1907 and is best known for depicting a lesbian relationship, including an affectionate scene between the two women in the rain. When Asch had a reading of the play, the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz said Asch should “burn it.” The play was well received in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but Orthodox New York newspapers argued that it reinforced anti-Semitic stereotypes.
In 1922, an English-language production opened at the Provincetown Playhouse. It then moved to the Greenwich Village Theater and subsequently to Broadway’s Apollo Theater, where the producers cut the notorious rain scene. Despite the cuts, the cast and producers were indicted for obscenity. In May 1923, the company was found guilty; the verdict was later overturned.
Taichman heard about this story during her first year at the Yale School of Drama. She wrote her thesis on the trial in the late 1990s. In 2010, she began collaborating on Indecent with Vogel, author of the Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive.
The action unfolds on a bare stage in many countries, starting in Warsaw in 1906 and ending in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1950s. In between, the company puts on the play in Moscow, Berlin, Bratislava, and New York City (on the Bowery in Yiddish, then Off Broadway and on Broadway in English). During the fateful night when the actors are arrested, the policeman watches the play from backstage until the curtain call. “I don’t have a warrant for you, Mr. Asch,” he says. “Just the actors.”
Vogel and Taichman’s years of work have paid off. Indecent is beautifully staged, and at times it’s heartbreaking. One image of the Yiddish theater troupe during World War II is devastating. But the play is also surprisingly funny. When a preppy girl, Virginia (Adina Verson), takes over one of the lesbian roles for the English-language production, she does it partly to shock her parents. A recent graduate of Smith College, she says, “I’ve been around lots of girls, so that should help…in this play.”
Under Taichman’s tight direction, the seven actors deftly juggle various characters. Playing members of the Yiddish theater troupe, they look like they’ve been working together for years. Richard Topol is wonderful as Lemml, the stage manager who discovers theater thanks to the play. Max Gordon Moore complements him perfectly as the brooding Asch. In one scene he plays Eugene O’Neill, who was upset about the obscenity trial; the actor then removes his mustache and quickly becomes Asch again. It’s a bit of theatrical magic.
When we finally see the scene between the two women in the rain, we realize it’s taken more than a century for it to be seen on Broadway. As Vogel has noted, the current political climate makes the play more timely than she thought it would be. I assume the cast won’t be thrown in jail for portraying lesbians in love on Broadway. But theaters in conservative parts of the country could face a backlash if they stage Indecent.
Throughout the play, Lisa Gurkin and Aaron Halva’s music adds to the mood and emotional impact. They also serve as music directors and play instruments onstage, along with Matt Darriau.
“Theatre is living memory,” Vogel writes in her affecting note in the program. Indecent’s story and stagecraft have now joined my other vivid theater memories.
Indecent is at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY 10036. Ticket information is here.