Sholem Asch began his 1923 run on Broadway with ample bragging rights — his was not only one of the first Yiddish plays to reach a mainstream audience, but it was also the young Polish writer’s first play. Preferring to write novels and poetry, Asch originally conceived his 1906 play God of Vengeance as a one-off, a conduit for his frustrations with Warsaw’s Jewish theater makers who were hell-bent on valorizing Judaism in an overly positive light onstage as an affront to rising anti-Semitism. Instead, Asch proposed Yiddish theater that was unafraid of representing Jewish people as both saints and sinners. The Jewish culturati largely shunned the play; stalwarts like playwright Isaac Peretz and activist Nakhmen Mayzel advised Asch to burn God of Vengeance. Defiantly, Asch took his incendiary play abroad, finding a worldwide audience entranced by his debauched tale of respectable Jews operating a hidden brothel.
This play launched Asch’s career, securing him passage to the US in 1922 when a theater in New York’s Greenwich Village picked up the play. But when God of Vengeance transferred to Broadway a year later, it had drastically changed. The producers were fearful: Would the show be too controversial for its broader audience? They weren’t so worried about the show’s depictions of prostitution or Torah desecration, but about Asch’s unrepentant, enthusiastic inclusion of two women in love, sharing a kiss in the rain. Lesbianism buried the play in scandal, ending its short-lived run on Broadway with obscenity charges for the play’s 12-member cast and its producer.
Indecent, playwright Paula Vogel’s Broadway debut, recasts God of Vengeance as a triumphant, defiant showcase of queer love far ahead of its time. Alongside her collaborator, director Rebecca Taichman, Vogel excavates the thematically complex history surrounding Asch’s work, and how a small Yiddish play became the focus of conservative America’s xenophobic agenda.
Vogel’s play begins with sawdust pouring out from the sleeves of the stoic men and women as they stretch and contort themselves into images of pain, sorrow, and grief. The dust settles on the floorboards of Broadway’s Cort Theatre for only a brief, melancholy moment before joyous dancing kicks up the particles. Klezmer music fills the air and suddenly we are in Poland, listening to Asch (played by Max Gordon Moore and Tom Nelis) as he eagerly awaits his wife Madje’s (Adina Verson) first impressions of his intrepid play. “My God, Sholem. It’s all in there. The roots of all evil: the money, the subjugation of women, the false piety,” she exclaims, “You make me feel the desire between these two women is the purest, most chaste, most spiritual—” Asch cuts off his wife with unrestrained enthusiasm and starts planning for productions across the world — Moscow, Paris, and Budapest await.
What follows is a mad dash around Europe, during which we gain snippets from God of Vengeance’s Torah desecration scene. Initially staged with earnest gravity, Vogel restages this controversial scene multiple times to emphasize God of Vengeance’s widespread popularity in Europe in spite of its tense subject matter. The crowd loves the Torah desecration scene; they love the lesbian kiss. Why would Asch and company worry about producing the show in America?
But Vogel and Taichman are more interested in the human story behind Asch’s play rather than the spectacle of its obscenity trial. Subsequently, we are shown how the Yiddish troupe navigated God of Vengeance’s religious and sexual politics again and again. We also see how the play must perpetually adapt and compromise for its audiences, especially once the play arrives in New York City. Here, audiences are less friendly to the Yiddish accent. They want Judy Garland types who can play all-American innocence, regardless of where a play comes from. Producers decide to nix Reina (also played by Adina Verson), who plays the lesbian ingénue Rifkele, because she cannot speak proper English. Her lover, Dorothee (Katrina Lenk), who plays the other lesbian lover, is frustrated with Reina. Why couldn’t she commit to learning English? She pleads with her, “We are the first generation that gets the chance our parents never got. To tell our stories. On American stages.”
But at what cost is Dorothee’s decision to stay? Indecent answers this question by exploring true events in Asch’s life. Behind the scenes, he is falling apart. Asch lives on Staten Island in relative seclusion, morbidly depressed after witnessing the early pogroms in Europe. He feels helpless, totally unable to convince the United States government to intervene on behalf of the Jewish people to prevent the Holocaust. Such immeasurable depression causes Asch to turn his back on God of Vengeance, agreeing to script changes that vilify Manke as Rifkele’s evil seductress. The innocence of their kiss is gone, replaced with innuendo and condemnation. And when the cast is finally charged with obscenity, Asch refuses to appear in court, sending a letter instead. The trial’s judge (Tom Nelis) condemns the play with an isolationist decree: “The time has come when the drama must be purified of eastern exoticism, its sexual pollution and its corruptive attitude towards the family.”
From here, Vogel graciously begins to experiment with the play’s form, opening it up to experimental abstraction. Time accelerates and reality shifts. The Yiddish language disappears from use. Many of the actors turn to dust, dying in the Holocaust. Asch, older and angrier than ever, refuses a new English translation of his play. “I wrote it in a different time,” he says. “The time has changed on me.” Suddenly, rain begins to pour down from the theater’s rafters. Out emerge Rifkele and Manke in their white nightgowns. Drenched in rain, we see a final, complete imagining of their moonlit kiss in the rain. The image of this single, pure moment of queer bliss lifts the dead actors from their graves; it revives Asch from his own despondency. And together, they dance in the rain.
Indecent by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman continues at the Cort Theatre (138 West 48th St, Midtown West, Manhattan) through June 12.