Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson star in Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” a play about the history of another play, Sholem Asch’s “The God of Vengeance” (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” is a play about a play, in this case the groundbreaking-but-now-mostly-forgotten “The God of Vengeance,” whose producer and cast were arrested on indecency charges upon the show’s Broadway debut in 1923. (The play, written in Yiddish around 1906 and first performed in Germany, had by 1923 already played around the world, including in Greenwich Village.)
With just six actors and three musicians, many of whom play multiple roles, Vogel hopscotches through five decades of history, reintroducing us to a work that rankled both Jewish and gentile theatergoers for its depictions of lesbianism, and its willingness to portray Jewish life in a non-flattering light. The Trump-era parallels that Vogel is trying to draw here, about the essential value of art to speak truth to censoring power and to give voice to the marginalized, are not very hard to miss.
Of course, this brand of theater — Broadway by way of a PBS documentary — can be very tricky to pull off, not without drowning an audience in exposition, a problem that the creators of last year’s musical-about-a-forgotten-musical “Shuffle Along” struggled with. But Vogel (who won the Pulitzer for “How I Learned to Drive”) and director Rebecca Taichman have created a fast-moving yet lucid drama whose short scenes convey a tremendous amount of information and a surprising amount of feeling. The creators use a full array of theatrical tools — rear-screen supertitles, brief Yiddish song-and-dance numbers, a lovely motif involving ashes pouring forth from the actors’ sleeves– to lend a sense of poetry, spectacle and scale to what might otherwise have been a too-modest tale.
If “Indecent” doesn’t land as forceful a dramatic punch as it might have, that’s probably because we never fully invest in any of the characters — of the more than forty figures in the script, only “The God of Vengeance” author Sholem Asch (Max Gordon Moore) and the show’s meek but devoted stage manager (Richard Topol) have full arcs.
Then again, that may be Vogel’s point, that transcendent theater takes on a character, identity and history all its own. The play’s the thing — and “Indecent” is a very good one indeed.
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York
Tickets: $39-$129, available online at www.telecharge.com. On sale through Sept. 10.