Dim light leaks through a gauzy scrim, illuminating bodies crumpled on a dusty stage, everything gray, everything still. Three musicians play silent music, their instruments making no sound, as those bodies slowly rise, the ashes filling their sleeves and hands draining to the floor. Suddenly, the whole eerie scene bursts open, klezmer music blares, gray light becomes vivid color and our company of actors stomp and sing, exuberant and alive.
So begins Paula Vogel’s Indecent, now running at Seattle Rep directed by Seattle’s Sheila Daniels, which is at once a memory play and a play-within-a-play. But primarily it’s a bioplay about a play, The God of Vengeance, beginning with its 1906 birth in Warsaw, when young Sholem Asch (Antoine Yared) presents his fresh manuscript to a salon of disapproving artistic associates, through its threadbare attic performances decades later, in the Lodz ghetto in German-occupied Poland.
“My God, Sholem, it’s all in there,” says Asch’s wife Madje (Andi Alhadeff), rapt over an early draft. “The roots of all evil: the money, the subjugation of women, the false piety, the terrifying violence of that father.” God of Vengeance was certainly revolutionary for its time. In brief, an outwardly pious Jewish man who runs a clandestine brothel buys a Torah for his daughter’s wedding. But when he discovers that she and one of the prostitutes have fallen in love, he casts his daughter into the brothel and defiles the Torah.
That love story is the narrative heartbeat of Asch’s script; the narrative heartbeat of Vogel’s is the infamous real-life 1923 production of God of Vengeance that featured the first lesbian kiss on Broadway and landed the cast (briefly) in jail on obscenity charges. Vogel, whose memory play How I Learned to Drive earned her a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize, again shows her deftness with complex storytelling as she weaves the story of the actors together with snippets of Asch’s original play.
Long before Broadway, our actors perform Vengeance across Europe to rapturous applause. Next came an American transfer into the vibrant Yiddish theatre scene of 1920s New York, then an English translation of the script. With that translation came a Broadway opportunity, led by a producer who gutted the female love story of its tenderness, primarily by excising a pivotal love scene in the rain, leaving only a kiss free of emotional context.
Indecent’s cast, playing multiple roles, delivers universally excellent performances, chief among them Alhadeff and the marvelous Cheyenne Casebier as Vengeance’s central lovers. But it’s Lemml (played by the immensely talented Bradford Farwell) a small-town tailor who becomes God of Vengeance’s longtime stage manager, who lights our way as narrator and guide.
Like many biopics and -plays, Indecent is weighed down by the enormous time and distance it must necessarily travel, from 1906 Warsaw to 1952 America, over the course of a 90-minute, no-intermission format. But as conceived by Vogel and Indecent’s original director Rebecca Taichman—who both won 2017 Tony Awards for their work—the distance is smoothly navigated. To shift a scene, the projected words “a blink in time” zip us forward, condensing hours, days, years into a moment. The vast majority of Indecent is written in English but supertitles indicate which language is being spoken—Yiddish, German, English—clarity never compromised for authenticity, and vice versa.
Sholem Asch, determined to portray Jewish people in all their flawed complexity, put everything on the line in God of Vengeance; it was a rabbi concerned about negative Jewish portrayals whose public condemnation led to the Broadway arrests. In contrast, Indecent is a beautiful, powerful piece of theater that probes controversial ideas without actually being controversial itself. In particular, the much-discussed rain scene, when it finally appears, feels a bit like a pulled punch. But that in no way diminishes Indecent’s complexity, exploring ideas of creative determination, censorship, immigrants, respectability politics and love, an arc of 20th-century Jewish experience, perhaps an elegy for the Yiddish theater, and above all a long overdue celebration for Asch and his groundbreaking play.
Indecent runs through October 26 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Prices and times vary, for full schedule visit seattlerep.org.