PROVIDENCE — In 1923, Sholem Asch’s earliest contribution to Yiddish theatre, “Der Goṭ Fun Neḳome” (“God of Vengeance”), served up Broadway’s first queer kiss and became a landmark work of lesbian dramatic literature. As the centerpiece of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” which opened on Broadway in 2017, it became a heart-stirring testimony to the power of art and a reminder of how history seems to be repeating itself.
Asch’s melodramatic, three-act masterwork — which at the turn of the 20th century achieved great success on the stages of Europe and in the Yiddish theatre scene of New York City’s Lower East Side — revolves around a Jewish owner of a brothel in Poland. He and his wife are determined to keep their daughter Rivke innocent and marriageable, but Rivke falls in love with Manke, one of the prostitutes, who returns her affections.
Their kiss was never meant to be significant or scandalous; just an 11th-hour expression of love and passion between two people. But when an English translation was attempted at Broadway’s Apollo Theatre, the play proved too “ethnic” for upscale audiences who embraced newly restrictive immigration laws, and problematic for local Orthodox rabbis who complained that its warts-and-all depiction of Jewish life was fanning the flames of growing antisemitism. And the kiss — which was coarsened and made loveless by producers without the playwright’s knowledge — was perceived as indecent. The theater was raided, the show’s producer and 12-member cast were arrested and convicted on charges of obscenity, and the production was shut down.
Vogel’s Tony Award-winning one-act play, which had its world premiere in 2015 at the Yale Repertory Theatre as a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse, meta-theatrically traces “God of Vengeance’s” history and that of its original company of actors. Once the players rise from the dust in the opening scene, we travel from the play’s first reading in a Warsaw salon to its last, an illegally staged production in an attic in occupied Poland’s Łódż ghetto on the cusp of the Holocaust.
“Indecent” brings to light the love story that drove “God of Vengeance,” but it also sheds light on how little things have changed in this country in terms of artistic censorship, religious hypocrisy, and homophobia (case in point is the recent termination of a Florida high school production of “Indecent” in an act of LGBTQ+ censorship, with authorities citing “adult sexual dialog” they said is inappropriate for student cast members and audiences). And with Yiddish being spoken and sung intermittently throughout the production — a near-dead language now, due largely to the extermination of roughly 5 million of its speakers during the Holocaust — we are reminded of just how expediently culture can be canceled.
This Wilbury Theatre Group staging is a return engagement of the work, with last April’s stellar production playing to sold-out audiences and added performances. All the reasons why are in evidence here.
Under the thoughtful direction of Susie Schutt (stage) and Milly Massey (music), this play whispers to its audience courtesy of Vogel’s gentle handling of the subject matter, the wonderfully understated performances turned in by the cast, and the graceful underscoring of klezmer music — the traditional folk music that Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe have been listening to for centuries — that surfaces organically throughout the play. On-stage actor/musicians Dylan Bowden on accordion, Assel Sat on clarinet, and Florence Wallis on violin, who return from the previous production, play beautifully.
Minimalistic scenic design inspired by original set designer Jeremy Chiang, with its simple wood slat backdrop and empty raised wooden platform, effectively evokes a sense of timelessness that facilitates the smooth progression of the storytelling. This leaves Dustin Thomas’s period-correct costuming and dialect coach Becky Gibel’s work with actors whose characters employ heavily accented, broken English when conversing with non-Yiddish speakers, to do the heavy lifting in terms of establishing each scene’s place, time, and temperament. All this is enhanced by Andy Russ’s dramatic lighting and projected Yiddish/English translations just above the performers.
The show’s remarkable, dexterous returning ensemble — Chris Stahl as the stage manager Lemml; Anna Slate as the female ingénue Chana and others; Patrick O’Konis as the male ingénue and others; Aimee Doherty as the middle-aged Halina and others; Dave Rabinow as the middle-aged Mendel and others; and Scott Levine as the elder Otto and others, with newcomer Claudia Traub as the elder Vera and others — adds layers of flesh to the many personalities they are asked to inhabit.
They also become a unified force in capturing the weight and somber tone that dominates the script, and never lose sight of the painstaking humanity at the heart of each of the roles they bring to life. Nor do they miss any opportunity to share the sense of joy that surfaces upon occasion, often through a reflection of the characters’ powerful connection with their heritage amidst the travesties they experience, and always through Ali Kenner Brodsky’s exuberant choreography.
“Indecent” is a spectacular play given, once again, a superb production.
Play by Paula Vogel. Directed by Susie Schutt. At The Wilbury Theatre Group, WaterFire Arts Center, 475 Valley St., Providence. Through Dec. 17. Tickets are $5 - $55. 401-400-7100, thewilburygroup.org/indecent.
Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle. Connect with him on Facebook.