Indecent by Paula Vogel
Indecent by Paula Vogel had a little bit of drama this summer, though not as big as the Shakespeare in the Park controversy or the early closure of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, and in fact it was possibly the most positive story from the commercial New York theatre world in a while.
The show was scheduled to close due to poor ticket sales on June 25, but due to this closing notice, two Tony Awards for Direction and Lighting Design, and renewed support for the show, the production was able to extend its run until August 6, and the production was filmed and broadcasted on PBS last weekend.
And I could not be more grateful. It’s been a little bit of a hiatus for Theatre Bites, which is what happens when your friendly neighborhood theatre nerd is in the middle of her first quarter of a theatre Ph.D. program. However, I was able to watch Indecent this past weekend, and it reminded me why I study theatre in the first place.
Indecent tells the story of the 1907 Sholem Asch play The God of Vengeance, a Yiddish morality play about religious hypocrisy and featured the first lesbian kiss on Broadway in 1923, which lead to the production being shut down after a short run and the cast and producers being charged and convicted for obscenity.
Add into the mix questions of anti-Semitism, Jewish identity, lesbianism, love, and history; throw in music, dancing, and some incredibly powerful stage images, and the play makes for a thrilling one hour, forty-five-minute watch.
There are things I could quibble with about with Indecent– in particular I think the doubling of roles can be confusing, and the historical framing can sometimes be unclear, particularly as we as an audiences shift in time and space with the characters, with the expectation that we will easily follow the shifts as the actors have, and sometimes action feels forced.
However, these things upon reflection don’t bother me as much as choices like this usually do. The emotional impact of Indecent was enough to make me pause my critical assessment.
2017 hasn’t been the easiest year for anyone, and Indecent telling the story of Yiddish theatre in struggle, the love between two female characters both within the action of The God Of Vengeance and in real life, and the final, heartbreaking minutes struck me in an emotional way that I wasn’t prepared for.
The premise of the play alone hints at where the story might head, but most striking is the theme of ashes, playing on the Bible verse from Genesis 3:19: “For you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Ashes punctuate the acting company’s first movements of the show, as dust falls from them as they begin their first dance. This first unsettling visual becomes incredibly heartbreaking by the end, where the audience realizes that these characters we have come to know, the actors and stage manager who had such faith in this play and headed back to Europe after the trials and tribulations in New York, are killed in the Holocaust, symbolized by the actors dropping handfuls of ash.
We see a glimmer of hope from the character of Lemml, the stage manager, who as he waits in line to die asks that this not be the ending, and we see the two women at the center of the play’s controversy break from the line and run off, giving Lemml a moment of hope.
But the play ends with a form of hope for the audience, and the metatheatrical story of The God of Vengeance itself. When Asch, who has renounced his play as a youthful lark and in 1952 been called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer for his ideas, prompting him to leave for England, he is met by a young director who wants to stage his play. When Asch dismisses him, the young man says that one day, Asch’s play will be performed again.
And it was. Prior to Indecent’s Broadway run, Asch’s play was produced by New Yiddish Rep in New York City in early 2017. Indecent, in the hands of Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman, tell Asch’s story, and the story of the play, to a wider audience beyond either the academic world and the Yiddish theatre community where the play has been mostly sequestered for the past fifty years. And from now until December 1, you can watch Indecent online for free, thanks to PBS.
Conclusions & Repercussions
For me, the hope of Indecent comes in three parts. First, it was the first Paula Vogel play on Broadway, which was insane and I’m glad that it has been rectified.
Second, the play packs an emotional punch that highlights how far we have come and how far we have to go in today’s world, ending on a hopeful image of a scene that caused so much trouble in the original production.
And third is that this play aired on television, and is now available to stream. As I have bemoaned in this column before, theatres have been struggling to find their audience, and open and public access to art and culture has been under attack as funding dries up.
But this play, by one of the foremost playwrights of the American theatre, about the struggles of a play to exist in a world that was not ready for it, beat the odds, first by staying open for longer after its initial closing notice, then by having it professionally filmed and broadcasted in a move that I wish was available to more productions.
So, if you have the time before December 1:
Please go watch Indecent on the PBS website. It is full of joy and sorrow, love and hate, beautiful imagery and powerful performances. And perhaps, let it open up the possibility, as the character of Lemml hopes, that where we are is not the ending.