REVIEW: In Indecent, A Journey from Asch’s to Ashes

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The ensemble of Indecent at the Arden Theatre. (Photo by Ashley Smith / Wide Eyed Studios)

There’s a wonderful story at the heart of Paula Vogel’s play Indecent, about another, much earlier play: Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, a startling manifesto on themes of family, religion, and corruption.

In 1907, Got fun nekome (as it was originally titled) was a surprise hit in New York’s burgeoning Yiddish theater. But its fall was as meteoric as its rise.

Translated into English and presented on Broadway in 1922, God of Vengeance (hereon, GoV for brevity) was shuttered in a burst of moral outrage, and its creators and cast indicted for obscenity. Asch lived into the 1950s (many of the others did not) but discouraged any interest in reviving his early play; Vogel’s mission here is to bring it once again into the light.

Or maybe it’s two or three or even more stories that Indecent is telling.

One is the general climate of anti-Semitism that clearly cast a shadow over the reception of GoV.  But Vogel—an openly lesbian playwright who often writes on gay issues—is also clearly fascinated by a love scene between two female characters at the heart of GoV, and more broadly by that play’s depiction of women, and surprisingly modern questions of agency (the background setting of GoV is a brothel).

Then too, Vogel situates Indecent in the wider timeline of Broadway theater—by the end, we’ve even heard strains of Oklahoma! in the background scoring.

That’s a lot to take in, and unfortunately Indecent falls on its own sword. Clocking in at under two intermission-less hours, it simultaneously feels overstuffed and underdeveloped. Key areas remain unclear, including whether the lesbian content was the major objection to GoV—which the title Indecent suggests—or American xenophobia that largely did it in. I’m guessing the latter, but Vogel is clearly front-lining the former. Nor does the structure of Indecent as a play-with-music really work; the inserted songs distract from the plot more than enhance it.

Few current playwrights have the mastery of craft that Vogel displays in her best work. But here, perhaps the sheer size and scale of the story get away from her. She resorts to gimmicky dramaturgy that involves supertitles (necessary for coherence, but twee), anthemic historical pageantry (some of which seems to be channeling Ragtime), and an opening sequence with narrator and plaintive solo violin that’s straight out of Fiddler on the Roof.  Along the way, the Indecent actors are required to employ a host of ever-changing accents (the Arden’s ensemble apply themselves diligently, but the results are decidedly mixed).

Vogel sees herself as a champion of Asch’s work—we get it, and we applaud her efforts. But she seems to be working too hard in lines like this, spoken by Asch’s awestruck future wife:

“My God, Sholem. It’s all in there… My God, the poetry in it—what is it about your writing that makes me hold my breath?”

… or this, from an effusive Eugene O’Neill:

“He’s crafted a play that shrouds us in a deep, deep fog of human depravity: then like a lighthouse, those two girls. That’s a beacon I will remember.

To be fair, O’Neill—then still a rising star in American theater—did indeed opine in support of Asch andGoV. But it would be better to show us the merits of God of Vengeance so we could judge for ourselves. For what it’s worth, the fragmentary bits we see in Indecent are less persuasive of Asch’s greatness than I’d hoped.

Vogel is also too good a writer to resort to bromides like this: “You are pouring petrol on the flames of anti-Semitism.” Or self-conscious bathos like this: “Ach. I too have lost audience members. Six million have left the theater.”

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Indecent at the Arden Theatre. (Photo by Ashley Smith / Wide Eyed Studios)

Imagery of the Holocaust is, to put it crudely, always effective. Show an audience a line of people in a concentration camp, and you’ll instantly have many of them in tears.

Specifically for that reason, I believe playwrights have an obligation to find ways into this material that aren’t easy. The plays about the Holocaust that I find most powerful are those with a particular story that adds a new dimension.  I’d hoped Indecent would be one of them—it has the elements. But Vogel doesn’t move far enough beyond theatrical clichés.

The Arden has put significant resources behind Indecent, directed here by Rebecca Wright, and featuring an earnest company of actors, among whom Doug Hara, David Ingram, and Leah Walton were especially strong. I wish they conveyed a stronger sense of the original GoV production’s theatrical style—its star, Rudolph Schildkraut, was a legend—but that’s at least as much a problem with Vogel’s script, which doesn’t give much to work with.

Your mileage, as they say, may differ. Clearly the opening night audience was deeply moved. I urge you to judge for yourselves.

I also have one request for the Arden administration: please put David P. Gordon’s marvelous set into storage for future use—evocative of a ghostly old theater in a state of disrepair, it would ideally suit a production of Sondheim’s Follies, which surely will be on the company’s schedule for some season in the not-too-distant future!


Indecent plays through June 23. For more information, visit the Arden Theatre website.

Categories: Philadelphia, Theater

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