Seldom has theater’s soul-nourishing quality, its power to endure and to help us endure across the generations, been more stirringly evoked than in the gravely beautiful, quietly moving, altogether exquisite “Indecent.’’
Written by Paula Vogel and directed by Rebecca Taichman — the term “dream team’’ doesn’t seem out of place — “Indecent’’ is a richly textured work whose galvanizing event is a real-life Broadway production that was whipsawed by the forces of censorship in the 1920s because it included a lesbian relationship.
It’s no slight to Vogel’s sharply etched characterizations and resonant dialogue to say that the story of “Indecent’’ is most expressively told through stage pictures that amount to a kind of visual poetry (a joyful embrace by the lovers during a rainfall, hands opening to release clouds of sand that represent both dust and ash), bodies in motion (the wonderfully fluid choreography is by David Dorfman), and faces that are inscribed with the variegated facets of human emotion and experience.
All in all, the spell cast by this play-with-music is likely to linger long after you leave the Huntington Avenue Theatre, site of a must-see coproduction by the Huntington Theatre Company and Center Theatre Group. Tonally, “Indecent’’ manages to be both understated and overpowering, but what’s equally impressive is the utter clarity achieved by Vogel and Taichman, despite the complexity and scale of a story that ranges across half a century, numerous countries, dozens of characters, several languages, and the monumental tragedy and crime of the Holocaust.
Taichman’s disciplined focus and expert sense of pacing, coupled with a uniformly excellent seven-member cast and three fine musicians circling onstage, ensure that the intimacy of “Indecent’’ is not eclipsed by its historical scope. (This “Indecent’’ is a remount of the production that had a too-short run on Broadway two years ago, and features several cast members from that production.)
In 1923, the cast and producer of “God of Vengeance’’ were arrested and subsequently convicted on obscenity charges. Vogel works backward and forward from that event, beginning “Indecent’’ in 1906 in Warsaw, where 23-year-old playwright Sholem Asch (Joby Earle) is introducing his new play at a literary salon. In keeping with Asch’s goal to write “plays in Yiddish which are universal,’’ it is written in Yiddish, though the playwright says: “I want our stories to be on every stage in every language.’’
However, tempers flare at the salon when it becomes apparent that Asch has depicted some Jewish characters in an unfavorable light and that “God of Vengeance’’ includes a tender love scene between the daughter of a brothel owner and a prostitute. The play is denounced as “garbage’’ and “hateful,’’ and Asch is warned that he “will be torn limb from limb if the public sees this play.’’
But the renowned actor Rudolph Schildkraut (portrayed by Harry Groener) agrees to star in “God of Vengeance’’ as the brothel owner. As Schildkraut’s Yiddish company takes “God of Vengeance’’ on the road, Vogel finds space to serve up an affectionate valentine to stage folk, having particular fun with the vanity of actors. The cast of the Schildkraut’s company gets progressively hammier as the play-within-the-play tours from Berlin to St. Petersburg to Constantinople to Bratislava.
Adina Verson and Elizabeth A. Davis are both superb as the actresses who portray, respectively, Rifkele, the daughter of the brothel owner, and Manke, the prostitute, in the “God of Vengeance’’ scenes. As “Indecent’’ traces the parallel journeys of play and playwright Asch, a touchingly enthusiastic stage manager named Lemml (Richard Topol) is our guide through the decades.
After “God of Vengeance’’ becomes embroiled in the obscenity controversy in America and the cast is arrested, Eugene O’Neill makes a cameo appearance in “Indecent.’’ From his perch in — where else? — a bar, O’Neill pronounces “God of Vengeance’’ a “corker of a play’’ and Asch a “fierce moralist.’’
Those words apply to “Indecent’’ and to Vogel as well. She dramatizes issues of Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, sexual mores, artistic boundaries, and freedom of expression while insisting on the primacy of love, simple and profound — including the love of theater.
Throughout “Indecent,’’ supertitles are periodically seen, including Vogel’s brilliantly simple, chronology-telescoping stage direction “A blink in time.’’ In a 1943 scene set in the Lodz ghetto, where a Jewish troupe turns an attic into a stage to perform “God of Vengeance,’’ and in a later sequence that cracks the heart, Vogel underscores the ways in which, throughout that blink in time known as human existence, people have turned to theater in the worst moments, and perhaps found fragments of hope there.
Play by Paula Vogel. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Coproduction by Huntington Theatre Company and Center Theatre Group. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, through May 25. Tickets from $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org