NEW YORK — When Paula Vogel first read Sholem Asch’s early 20th-century Yiddish drama “God of Vengeance” as a 23-year-old graduate student at Cornell, she was “bowled over” by the incendiary lesbian romance at the center of the play. A faculty member had enthusiastically suggested she read it, and Vogel, then just coming to terms with her sexuality, got the sense he was “trying to tell me something” without saying it outright. She raced over to the library and stood in the stacks, where a yellowed copy of the play had been tucked away, and eagerly flipped through the pages.
“It stunned me. I did not move. I couldn’t even sit. I read it in one fell swoop and when I finished the second act, I felt like I had stopped breathing,” says Vogel, a longtime resident of Wellfleet, over the phone from Montgomery, Ala. “I fell in love with the play, and it was a huge influence on me in terms of how to present love between two women.”
In “Indecent,” which the Huntington Theatre Company is presenting April 26-May 25, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright traces the tumultuous real-life history and pivotal events surrounding “God of Vengeance.” That play boasted the first-ever kiss between two women on Broadway and provoked a huge scandal when it premiered there in 1923, so much so that the production was shut down by the New York vice squad, and the cast, producer, and theater owner were put on trial for obscenity.
Vogel’s “Indecent” made its own Broadway bow in 2017 and was nominated for three Tony Awards, with Rebecca Taichman winning for best director of a play. The Huntington and Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles are remounting that production, which will move to L.A. in June, with Taichman reprising her role as director alongside the original design team, several members of the Broadway cast, and klezmer-inspired music written by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva.
“It looks at the passage of this one piece of art through this massive swath of history, from 1907 to 1952,” says Taichman, on a lunch break inside a Manhattan rehearsal studio. “It’s a moving lens through which to view how a piece of art evolved and was received and changed, and how its meaning shifts over time.”
The idea for the play originated with Taichman, who first became fascinated with “God of Vengeance” while a student at the Yale School of Drama. Asch’s papers were housed at Yale, and she’d found the transcript of the obscenity trial at the school’s law library. So for her thesis play, she and a dramaturg, Rebecca Rugg, created “The People vs. The God of Vengeance” that wove together parts of the trial transcript with selections from Asch’s play.
“I felt like I had stumbled upon this extraordinary memory that was profound and meaningful and sort of lost to history,” Taichman says. “I felt intimately inside it in some way and felt I had to caretake it and have it continue to be remembered.”
The story stuck with her for years. But she needed a real playwright to properly bring the history to life. After Bill Rauch, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director, commissioned the project, she anxiously approached Vogel at the suggestion of a former Yale professor. “I barely got out a full sentence,” Taichman recalls, when Vogel told her yes. Vogel says that meeting Taichman was like “finding a fellow Trekkie.”
During an initial phone conversation with Taichman and Rauch, Vogel’s mind flashed with “the dusty figures” of a theater troupe holed up in an attic, arranging the furniture and arranging suitcases. “I literally saw it in my head,” she says, “and that’s usually a sign I have to write this.”
She’d conjured up the ghosts of a ragtag group of Jews in the Lodz ghetto in German-occupied Poland, who had secretly performed “God of Vengeance” as a life-affirming act in defiance of the Nazis. “I said to both my colleagues, I think the play is larger than the obscenity trial,” Vogel recalls. “They both said, ‘Well, follow what you see.’”
An ensemble piece, “Indecent” weaves together key moments in the history of “God of Vengeance,” using music, movement, dance, and evocative visual poetry as connective tissue. The play shows the birth of “Vengeance” in 1906 in Warsaw, with Asch giving the play to his wife Madje to read. A melodrama that rails against the hypocrisy of false piety, “Vengeance” was first performed in Yiddish in Germany in 1907, performed throughout Europe, and later translated into dozens of languages. The play tells the story of an innocent teenage girl, Rifkele, who falls in love with a prostitute, Manke, who works in the brothel operated by Rifkele’s father in the basement of their home, and his efforts to became a “respectable Jew” by marrying her off to a pious scholar.
“It shines a bright light onto what are still some of the most taboo, sensitive, and difficult issues in the Jewish world and far beyond — domestic violence, prostitution, men of faith who behave in deeply immoral ways, and same-sex love,” says Asch’s great-grandson, David Mazower, who lives in Amherst and works as the editorial director at the Yiddish Book Center there. “Asch takes the side of the powerless and the marginalized — the teenage daughter trapped by an arranged marriage she doesn’t want, sex workers dreaming of a different future.”
In the play, producer Harry Weinberger announces to the cast that “God of Vengeance” will move uptown to Broadway from Greenwich Village, where it’s been a hit but also faces an anti-Semitic backlash. However, a tender and erotic scene between the two women, standing in a rainstorm as they caress and kiss each other, is removed from the play for the Broadway transfer, much to the consternation of the cast. Nevertheless, a few weeks after performances begin, a rabbi from a prominent temple files a complaint, the police shut down the show, and the cast, Weinberger, and theater’s owner are indicted.
Vogel says that when her brother, Carl Vogel, was dying of AIDS in the late 1980s, he started rereading Holocaust literature, which astonished his sister, and she asked him why. “He looked at me and said, ‘Do you realize that one half of our family has always been killing off the other half of our family?’ That really resonated. I feel like I’m still in conversation with my brother about what happens to us as a people when one half kills the other half, and I worry that we’re at a similar point again as a country. We’re in a danger zone, and the question is, will we take action before it’s too late?”
Indeed, Vogel and Taichman cannot help but point to the play’s contemporary relevance when acts of anti-Semitism and hate crimes are on the rise and issues of censorship, xenophobia, immigrant rights, and LGBTQ rights are being hotly debated. “The play keeps gaining resonance, and that’s alarming,” Vogel says. “I wanted to make this as much an American story as it is a Yiddish theater story.”
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At the Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, April 26-May 25. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org