It doesn’t have an intermission, but it’s really a two-act play.
Although Paula Vogel’s INDECENT has an hour-forty-five running time, you may feel it has nothing more to say when it reaches the sixty-minute mark.
You’d be wrong, but few would blame you for coming to that conclusion. For by then, you’ve apparently seen everything that has happened to Polish writer Sholem Asch’s 1906 play GOD OF VENGEANCE. There’s drama concerning his drama that deals less with god and vengeance than with brothels and lesbianism.
And, as we learn after Asch’s wife praises the script that he’s shown her, it’s also about the evils that money can bring and the subjugation of women.
Sholem responds to her genuine enthusiasm with “Don’t bring down the evil eye.” He knows that many eyes might well see GOD OF VENGEANCE as evil.
“It’s the 20th century,” she pooh-poohs. “We’re all attracted to both sexes.”
In a play-within-a-play set-up, Vogel takes care to show us the last few lines of GOD OF VENGEANCE four consecutive times. That’s to firmly establish its success in the early decades of the 20th century. It was produced, as projections on the back wall inform us, in St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Bratislava and Berlin, where two ladies are seen beedle-deedle-deeing.
When VENGEANCE came to New York in 1920, however, its triumphs came to a sudden end. You know us Puritanical Americans; the local law was scandalized by it and closed it down.
For the record, VENGEANCE played The Apollo Theatre – now part of what is the Lyric Theatre, where PARAMOUR recently played.
(Now THAT’s the show that should have been shut down!)
Just when we might infer that the end of the New York engagement is the end of the play, the unofficial “second act” begins. Vogel, who conceived the work with her expert director Rebecca Taichman, found a completely different story to be told. They concentrate on what happened to the VENGEANCE cast and crew after they left America in disgust and returned home to Europe.
Costume designer Emily Rebholz lets us immediately see what’s befallen our band of actors. We’re initially mystified why the next time we’re in Europe and about to witness a scene from VENGEANCE that it’s in a makeshift theater. There Lemml, the stage manager, announces we’ll only be seeing Act Two of the play. Why not Acts One and Three? We’ll soon learn the tragic reason why GOD OF VENGEANCE must be performed piece-meal over a three week-period.
Vogel is dealing with a most serious subject, but in the tradition of all great playwrights who tackle tough plots and themes, she knows enough to infuse a good deal of humor into it. There are dozens of gags as good as “Why do so many playwrights write about brothels?” The answer? “Research.”
INDECENT also shares a point-of-view with, of all things, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. That Oscar-winning film pointed out that show business and its myriad problems have remained amazingly the same since the 16th century; INDECENT reiterates that the Second Avenue Yiddish theater of a century ago had divas, abrupt firings, cranky staff members and, of course, and oh-so-wise opinions from anyone watching a rehearsal. Yeah, everybody’s a critic.
How much life and imitate art comes into play as well. Is it our imagination, or are the two women playing the lesbian lovers in VENGEANCE actually becoming lesbian lovers?
As powerful as INDECENT was last spring at the Vineyard Theatre, it comes across even better at the Cort on Broadway. This is a big play and it profits from having much more breathing room than the much smaller stage on East 15th could give it. Taichman uses the space beautifully, placing the most important moments close to the lip of the stage. Each actor seems to be where he or she should be.
Is Vogel or Taichman responsible for a striking visual image that informs us that people have died? Whoever did must be congratulated for this masterstroke. Taichman also makes the swish of a bedspread over a naked foot seem astonishingly erotic. Vogel shows us the VENGEANCE cast waiting, waiting, waiting in a long, long line at Ellis Island and then, in the play’s “second act,” shows us that same line under very different circumstances. It will get a gasp from even the most jaded theatergoer.
The performers are all marvelous and work splendidly as a unit. Who’s who? The program chooses not to tell us beyond identifying Richard Topel as Lemml; every other performer is simply identified as “Actor.” If Vogel and Taichman see fit not to spill the beans on the identity of each, I shouldn’t either. Let’s just say that, in alphabetical order, Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi and Adina Verson are all splendid in whichever part each plays either for a few lines or for a full scene.
And yet, the three musicians are identified by name. Aaron Halva makes the biggest impression as the grinning accordionist.
The Grinning Accordionist … sounds like the title of a mystery by Sidney Bruhl – Ira Levin’s fictional playwright in DEATHTRAP, doesn’t it?
The difference is that when we meet Bruhl, he’s all written out. Paula Vogel, however, shows us through INDECENT that she’s at the height of her powers.