In “Indecent,” at Baltimore Center Stage through March 31, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (“How I Learned to Drive,” “The Baltimore Waltz”) has written a play with real chutzpah.
Directed by Eric Rosen and presented in a tight, well-paced 90 minutes, Vogel’s work tells “the true story of a little Jewish play” – a little Jewish play that happened to present the first kiss between two women on Broadway.
As the play-within-a-play opens, we are introduced to our narrator/stage manager Lemml (played sympathetically by Ben Cherry), who sets the scene and introduces the Yiddish theater troupe we will follow from 1906 Warsaw to 1920s Ellis Island and Broadway and back to 1930s Poland.
On the surface, “Indecent” is about Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s “The God of Vengeance” (“Got fun Nekomeh”), a controversial 1907 play that featured at its core a lesbian love story. Shocking even by contemporary standards given the subject matter, the play enjoyed wild success all over Europe, was translated into several languages, ultimately made it to Broadway (in an censored English translation) and involved the arrests of its stars on obscenity charges.
But “Indecent” is actually about so much more than that.
“Indecent” is … about identity and assimilation
While the dialogue is mostly in English, the audience is meant to assume the characters are speaking in Yiddish. Projected supertitles provide the linguistic cues and translations so the viewer knows when the characters are speaking English or otherwise. At one point, the audience sees the troupe perform the same scene many times in succession, but slightly altered. When it’s finally presented in Yiddish, we already know the lines, allowing us to return to our roots and believe we speak the mamaloshen, the mother tongue.
When the play is performed in Europe, it has a soul and a clear Yiddishe identity. With its brothel owner, who commissions a Torah that “costs all the whores on their backs and their knees for a year” in order to find his daughter a respectable match, “Indecent” owns its Jewishness and doesn’t make apologies for some of its less-than-flattering representations of its Jewish characters.
When the troupe arrives at Ellis Island, they lose their traditional garb and shave their beards. “This is America; even a Jew looks like a goy,” one character declares. They Americanize their names — the naïve, awestruck Lemml becomes Lou – and try to adapt to performing the play on Broadway in heavily accented English (sounding too much like they came from the shtetl) with several thematic cuts that sully the play’s original message. Oy, the masterpiece has been ongepothket!
Surprisingly, or maybe not, most of the anti-Semitic sentiments directed at the play come from members of the Orthodox community who think it reinforces stereotypes and are concerned with presenting Jews as the most upstanding of citizens. Yiddish newspapers call it “filthy, immoral and indecent.” The actors are told they’re polluting New York stages. Asch profoundly asks, “Why must every Jew onstage be a paragon?”
“Indecent” is … about morality
“Indecent” explores what it means to be Jewish in America and what it means to be Jewish in America while people you know and love are being murdered for being Jewish in Europe. In the early 1920s, Asch (Max Wolkowitz) traveled to Europe as a member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. While there, he witnessed pogroms and atrocities, and he never quite recovers from what he sees. As he spirals into a nervous breakdown, he is sure the horrors befalling European Jewry can come to the U.S. despite his wife’s best efforts to comfort him with, “No, it won’t happen here. We’re safe.”
Yet, some of the loyal troupe members dedicated to their craft would rather return to 1930s Europe with the original Yiddish version of the play than stay in the “safe” U.S. They want the freedom to continue performing it authentically, though they surely knew what fate awaited them.
“Indecent” is … about love
The actors in the theater troupe (all flawless and engaging in their depictions) repeatedly express a love for theater and a passion for true art, but there’s also that lesbian love story at the heart of all of this. In the infamous “rain scene” of “The God of Vengeance,” two female leads (Susan Lynskey and Emily Shackelford) — a prostitute and daughter of a brothel owner who wants to marry her off — pretend to get married and, according to the stage direction, kiss. This is perceived as a beautiful, poignant moment of true, pure love when it’s originally performed, though it did have early detractors who presciently told Asch to burn it.
Asch’s wife tells him at the beginning of the play, “It’s the 20th century, we’re all attracted to both sexes.” Another character says, “God forbid the goyim think the Jewish ladies love each other as human beings.”
Though it touchingly explores a plethora of important and topical themes, there are some moments in Vogel’s work that feel anachronistic. Some jokes fall flat. Some liberties are taken with the timeline, but how else would one explore so much in such a concise time frame?
“Indecent” is an immigration story. It’s a Yiddish story. It’s a Jewish story. It’s an LGBT story. It’s an identity story. It’s a survival story. It’s a history lesson. It’s a celebration of a forgotten art form. And this interpretation of a “little Jewish play” written in 1907 is entirely topical. It’d be a shanda to not see it.
Watch a trailer for the show here:
“Indecent,” directed by Eric Rosen, is at Baltimore Center Stage through March 31. Go to centerstage.org for more information.