Scholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance opened at Broadway’s Apollo Theatre in 1923. In the three-act drama that had toured since 1907, Jack Chapman (originally Yekel Chapchovich) was a starving Jewish orphan when he immigrated to America. To escape poverty on the Lower East Side, he became street-smart. Late in the play he explains to 17-year-old daughter Rifkele that, unlike why he chose his profession, “you are not the work of a vengeful god.” He fought to keep her pure — “a chaste Jewish daughter” — so she could live the American dream.
When the curtain rose at the Apollo, first-nighters saw the cross-section of a two-level structure: upstairs, the apartment Jack shares with wife Sarah and Rifkele; in the cellar below, a brothel. It became clear that Jack ran the brothel, and that Sarah was an ex-prostitute. Onto this demeaning occupation, the playwright added Rifkele’s growing love for Manke, a prostitute, Jack’s desecration of the Torah, and his verbal assault on his God. All raised eyebrows, and sometimes more, wherever the play was produced. But that version was Got fun Nekome, and the performances were in Yiddish. The script at the Apollo, cut and pasted allegedly with Asch’s approval, was in English. When the curtain came down, police arrested the cast and producer for obscenity.
But what about artistic expression in the land of the free? “Why must every Jew on stage be a paragon?” Asch wrote to show what people have in common. Rabbi Joseph Silverman, who may have tipped the police, urged that positive images were important, especially for Jewish immigrants. “When you throw stones,” he tells Asch, “throw them outside the tent.”
Paula Vogel’s Indecent, at the La Jolla Playhouse in a co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre, follows the play’s journey through a gauntlet, from a first reading with Asch and friends in Warsaw, 1907, which sparked controversy even then, to Asch bitterly renouncing his most famous work in the 1950s.
For decades, Paula Vogel has been one of this country’s finest and most daring playwrights. But compared to her How I Learned to Drive and The Baltimore Waltz, Indecent unfolds like a minimalist epic, with music and dance. It’s a tapestry of the times from 1907 to 1953. It’s also the story of a controversial play; the travelogue of a theatrical troupe; the ongoing angst of a world-class writer; a study of gender and sexual identity, along with issues of immigration, assimilation — whether to stand out or fit in, join the new culture or preserve the old.
How to paint such a canvas? Do what Thomas Pynchon did in Against the Day? Cover 45 years in micro-detail and 1085 pages? Not on a stage. In a stunning co-production, Indecent hits the high- and sad-lights of the story. But sometimes just hits and runs.
Not counting God of Vengeance, the script has at least five potential plays. Asch (1880–1957), who suffered mightily for his robust art, could be one. His novels and dramas brilliantly combine spiritual themes with funky outcasts and unfettered eroticism. And just what did he do to the English version of Vengeance? Did he cut the notorious/enchanting lesbian “rain scene,” or did someone else? Did Asch, or that someone else, make revisions for a more positive image of Jewish immigrants on Broadway?
A biography of the Yiddish troupe could be another play: Life on the Tour. Their travels and travails are a slice of rarely told theatrical history. Led by Rudolph Schildkraut’s highly praised Yekel, they perform in theaters, storefronts, even an attic. As they move through the decades, acting styles change. They face a version of the immigrant’s question: adapt or preserve the traditional, Old Country manner?
The Rebecca Taichman–directed production combines various styles, songs, dances, and movement into a theatrical kaleidoscope. Seven versatile actors and three top-notch musicians (Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva, Travis W. Hendrix) interweave in such precise and graceful ways it’s hard to tell where David Dorfman’s fluid choreography begins or ends. All dance, all sing, and all play musical instruments with klezmer inflections — as when Katrina Lenk, excellent as Manke and others, does polished accompaniment on a violin.
It’s a master class in ensemble work. At the same time, individuals, and pairings, stand out. Max Gordon Moore gets Asch’s anguished gravitas. Tom Nelis’s indomitable Schildkraut and Richard Topol’s hypersensitive Lemnl bookend the company’s ideals. Steven Rattazzi and Mimi Lieber contribute in multiple roles. Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson give the lovers, Manke and Rifkele, an almost mystical grace.
They perform on a low platform with spare props. As in story theater, when not on the humble stage the cast sits in chairs at the rear wall (and disappear when Christopher Akerlind’s deft lighting throws focus elsewhere). Tal Yarden’s projections include useful commentary on where we are and when.
The production and the play make for a tapestry both tight and frustrating. Indecent wants to cover a great deal — including cameos by Fred Astaire and Eugene O’Neill — in 100+ nonstop minutes. It hops from one mountaintop to the next with few pauses, other than the occasional song. As scenes rush by, emphasis shifts from Asch to the lesbian couple to the play to cultural questions with little time for development. But why the hurry? Why the snapshot approach? Why not an intermission so this entertaining and vitally important piece can enjoy its own artistic freedom and breathe?
Indecent, by Paula Vogel
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
Directed by Rebecca Taichman; cast: Richard Topol, Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Adina Verson; musicians, Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva, Travis W. Hendrix; scenic design, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Matt Hubbs; projections, Tal Yarden; choreographer, David Dorfman; music director, Aaron Havla