‘Indecent’ Explores Theatrical — and Jewish — History
Paula Vogel’s play Indecent, which premiered on Broadway in 2017, is now playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre through July 7. It is, quite simply, a theatrical tour de force.
The piece, which was created in close collaboration with director Rebecca Taichman, explores the history of Sholem Asch’s controversial play God of Vengeance.
Although Vogel is listed as the sole author, it’s hard to imagine this play without Taichman’s contributions; it certainly would not be nearly as powerful, moving, or light on its feet. The director’s thrilling staging, which never calls attention to itself, elevates the entire evening from a history play to a pulsing and compelling piece of theater.
God of Vengeance was considered groundbreaking — and scandalous — when it premiered on Broadway in 1923, partly due to a lesbian romance. After the opening night on Broadway — where the lesbian romance was removed — the cast was still arrested on charges of obscenity. The play hints that plain antisemitism was to blame.
Vogel and Taichman take the audience on a wide-ranging journey that spans decades, continents, and generations — all in less than two hours of playing time. Although not a musical, the piece is certainly a play with music. Singing, dancing, and music are integral to the show — and it’s incredible how much Taichman accomplishes with so little (three musicians and a handful of actors).
The play is not really about God of Vengeance or its lesbian romance. In reality, it’s a commentary on and tribute to the theater, the role of art in society, and the world of Yiddish and Jewish theater that has been extinguished forever — due to assimilation and Jewish persecution.
It could not be more appropriate that the play is being reviewed in The Algemeiner, given that our paper originally started as a Yiddish daily. Indecent invokes this old Yiddish world — both the theatrical and non-theatrical — in vivid manner. It’s hard to watch the show and not wish that this beautiful world would somehow be resurrected. But unfortunately, that world has come and gone.
Because the play is so sweeping, it never gets to dive deeply into any of its subject matter. Perhaps the character who resonates most is Sholem Asch himself. As portrayed here, Asch is a complicated person and artist, battling with himself, his work, and his legacy. Some of the most powerful moments of the play involve seeing the impact that Jewish persecution in Europe (which he witnessed personally) had on Asch. It crippled him — both emotionally, and perhaps artistically. As depicted in the play, it’s something he never recovered from.
The most moving performance comes from the marvelous Richard Topol, who plays Lemml (or “Lou,” as he becomes known in America). Lemml is our host and interlocutor, and — as he constantly reminds us — God of Vengeance changed his life. While anyone who has been bit by the theatrical bug will relate to Lemml’s journey, his story is much more universal. He represents all of us who’ve found passion and meaning in life — through art, or through another experience — and have been fundamentally changed by it.
While the rest of the cast is uniformly strong (especially Harry Groener playing the older male roles), the play isn’t really about the performances. It’s about a theatrical tradition that has been handed down and lost. It’s about the power and life-changing impact of art. And it’s about the humanity in all of us, Jews and non-Jews alike.
The play contains a few endings, and I don’t want to give any of them away. But it is what happens to the theatrical troupe — and Asch himself — that will likely haunt you as you leave the theater. The former because of a world washed away by time and history, and the latter because of the power that our lives — and our art — can have long after we are gone, and long after we intended them to.
If you love theater, Judaism, Yiddish, or care about legacies, tradition, and the power of art, Indecent is not to be missed.
‘Indecent’ plays at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through July 7. More information and tickets can be found here.