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May 31, 2017

"Indecent" Review


By Anita Gates

They decide to delete the lesbian love scene. Maybe that will solve the problem. It’s 1923, a Yiddish-theater company is moving its latest production from a downtown New York theater to Broadway, and some people are saying the play violates standards of common decency.

As Paula Vogel’s potent and haunting new play, “Indecent,” reveals in gripping detail, that decision did not fix things. The cast was still arrested on obscenity charges, and the production was still shut down. It’s a true story, more or less. The play was Sholem Asch’s turn-of-the-century melodrama “God of Vengeance,” about a Jewish man who lives with and raises his family on one floor of his building and runs a brothel on another floor. The sexy scene is between the man’s virginal daughter and one of the prostitutes; the two young women had fallen in love. There is also a scene in which the lead male character desecrates the Torah.

That love scene (passionate kisses during a rainstorm) is back in “Indecent,” depicted more than once,  between characters played by Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson. And the production, at the Cort Theater, is nominated for three Tony Awards: best play, best director (Rebecca Taichman) and best lighting design (for Christopher Akerlind’s beautifully bleak mood-setting). Taichman has already won the best director Obie, for the play’s Off Broadway run last year at the Vineyard Theater.

Remarkably enough, this is the Broadway debut of the playwright too. Vogel, 65, is best known for her 1997 masterpiece, “How I Learned to Drive,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It opened Off Broadway and swept away the critics but never transferred. Vogel has been prolific since then (“The Mineola Twins,” “The Oldest Profession,” “Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief” and more), but the closest any of those productions came to Broadway (geographically and spiritually) was the Signature Theater complex on far West 42nd Street.

Some have criticized Vogel for connecting the story to the Holocaust – the last performance of “God of Vengeance” that we glimpse is in the Lodz ghetto in Poland, by actors who express concern that they won’t be around to do Act III – but the ashes-to-ashes structure seems to me absolutely logical and deeply meaningful. The juxtaposition is powerful in the same way that D.M. Thomas’s novel “The White Hotel” was, moving from a psychiatrist’s couch to the massacre at Babi Yar.

“Indecent” is a play with music, traditional songs and klezmer-inflected numbers by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, who also appear onstage as musicians, and choreography by David Dorfman. The sense of a culture, a community and individual lives lost is never stronger than in the musical moments. 

Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street,

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