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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 26, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 21
My Indecent journey to Broadway
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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My Indecent journey to Broadway

by Ron Anders - SGN A&E Writer

INDECENT
CORT THEATRE
NEW YORK CITY


Over the years, I have made many trips to New York City, my hometown, for a wide variety of dazzling theatrical events. However, my most recent visit is one that changed my life.

Throughout my childhood, I had heard about author Sholem Asch from his niece, my mother. Although I never met him (he died when I was seven years old), I learned that he was a renowned Yiddish writer who courted controversy by writing novels about Christianity, angering his elders and alienating many of his devotees.

Flash forward to 2016: I heard that a revival of his play God of Vengeance was opening off-Broadway. The reviews were sterling and piqued my interest, but I could not make the journey to New York during the play's short run.

Some backstory: In 1923, a major theatrical scandal took place when God of Vengeance premiered in New York after successful productions in Yiddish and German throughout Europe and Russia. The play depicted the life of an observant Jewish man and his family who lived above the brothel he owned. The play also featured the depiction of a loving relationship between the man's daughter and one of his brothel's prostitutes.

After touring without incident, the production landed off-Broadway intact. But before its move uptown, Asch bowed to pressure from the play's producers and changed the women's relationship to one of manipulation. Despite the change, when the production transferred to Broadway the cast and crew were charged with obscenity, fined, and jailed. The charges were soon overturned on appeal.

This all-but-forgotten incident is stunningly brought to life in Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel's new play Indecent. The production has been rapturously received by critics and richly rewarded with award nominations (including multiple Tony Award nominations) - and for good reason: it gives a sobering, often harrowing, account of a destructive clash between art and censorship.

Vogel uses this clash as a template to examine a writer's commitment (or lack thereof) to his work, censorship, morality and queer identity. Against that backdrop, she spins a tale of Jewish identity spanning fifty years.

The actors (Richard Topol, Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Adina Verson) all bring great urgency and dignity to their multiple roles. The onstage musicians (Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva) mingle with the actors, providing alternatively playful and mournful Klezmer music to underscore the joys and sorrows of the characters.

Under the inventive direction of Rebecca Taichman, the production's near-barren stage, bathed in the halo of Christopher Akerlind's exquisite, spectral lighting, becomes the study of Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz (who admonishes Asch to abandon his play), an attic in the Lodz ghetto (where the play is performed by residents who would soon be shipped off to slaughter) and a rain-soaked tableau where two young women awaken to the sensual pleasure of each other's bodies.

Renowned playwright Paula Vogel (making her Broadway debut here) and director Rebecca Taichman were entranced by God of Vengeance when each discovered it separately. Their eventual collaboration on Indecent is clearly a passionate labor of love.

The decision to move Indecent to Broadway (from its origins at the Yale Repertory Theatre, the La Jolla Playhouse and the Vineyard Theater) was made well before last November. Little could its creators know how the play's themes of persecution and intolerance would be so uncannily appropriate in the wake of our presidential election. In a note from the playwright in the show's playbill, Vogel states: 'The purpose of theatre is to wound our memory so we can remember.' Although Indecent certainly takes its audiences to a very wounded place, the play ends on a sweetly redemptive note - a small, thrillingly theatrical miracle.

On a personal level, Indecent introduced me to a part of my family history I never knew or imagined, including a great-uncle I had heard little about. Seeing him brought to life by two actors (one portraying the young, aspiring writer, the other portraying the veteran author and Nobel Prize nominee) made me yearn to explore my family history and to re-examine my own career path as a writer. Most significantly, this experience led me to reappraise my identity as a gay Jewish man.

Accompanying me to the performance was a dear friend and her 21-year-old daughter (who is my goddaughter), both lesbians. Their presence made me more aware of how important it is that younger generations carry on our long struggle for equality, bringing an unexpected new layer of emotion to the day. To top this off, producer Daryl Roth and the cast of Indecent warmly welcomed us for a post-performance backstage visit, a joyous, theatrical, familial, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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My Indecent journey to Broadway
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