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WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Indecent,” written by Paula Vogel (and directed by Eric Rosen), is being performed at Arena Stage through Dec. 30. The show employs a favorite technique of this reviewer: the play-within-a-play, a format used to great effect in productions ranging from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” In “Indecent,” the outer play revolves around the real-life efforts by the Yiddish playwright Shalom Asch to stage his 1906 play “God of Vengeance” in Europe and America – a work which provoked enormous controversy, especially within the Jewish community.
Reasons include a lesbian kiss on stage, the association of Jews with brothel ownership and a significant character throwing a Torah scroll to the ground.
“God of Vengeance” was thus accused in both Europe and the U.S. not only of indecency (hence the title of the current play, “Indecent”) and blasphemy but also of anti-Semitism due to its depiction of certain Jewish characters. The inner play, of course, would be the staging of scenes from “God of Vengeance” itself.
Arena’s production of “Indecent” allows the audience to learn of this controversy and then form its own judgment. Audience members may favor or disfavor the actions Asch presented on stage; however, all can agree that the controversy provoked by Asch’s drama was significant, and many aspects remain relevant today. Several scenes from “God of Vengeance” are shown, using effective staging to frame and even zoom in on the “play-within-a-play” sequences.
The characterizations are also compelling. One character of particular interest is Lemml, portrayed brilliantly by Ben Cherry. Lemml is a poor tailor from the country who happens to be at the first reading of Asch’s play. “Your play has changed my life!” he says to Asch, and Lemml becomes Asch’s first champion and stage manager.
Lemml also functions as something of a narrator for “Indecent,” and in a sense, Lemml might be a greater artist, or at least have greater artistic conviction, than Ashe himself! When Asch agrees to changes to make the play less objectionable in an English production in New York, Lemml tells Asch the playwright does not, in fact, have the right to change his own play, on the grounds that the play belongs no longer to the artist who created it but to the troupe which performs it and the audience which sees it.
The question then becomes not only once of decency, but also who is the real artist or, more broadly, the owner of an idea. Is it solely the author of the “God of Vengeance?” Or could it be Lemml and the actors and collaborating artists who are powerfully moved by the work of art, and who are willing to defend it and improve upon it, even during hard times? Does the work in some way belong to the audience and the surrounding community?
And, especially relevant to our own times, how much should an artist support civil discourse, versus questioning or even disrupting long-cherished community values for some perceived greater good?
“Indecent” has many dark moments, such as when Lemml later stages “God of Vengeance” in an attic in a Jewish ghetto in Poland during the Holocaust. Yet, there are also moments of exhilaration as well, sometimes conveyed through music. Examples are the use of many tunes, such as the Yiddish song favorite which crossed into the mainstream hit parade, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” Or the channeling of Marlene Dietrich (by talented actress Susan Lynskey) in look and style during a scene set in a Berlin cabaret. Through the uses of Broadway (even including “Ain’t We Got Fun”), cabaret and klezmer pieces, the music and choreography of Erika Chong Shuch are superb.
“Indecent” uses surtitles very effectively to tell us when certain characters speak in their native Yiddish versus their halting English. When speaking in Yiddish, the actors speak with American accents to show their fluency in their native language. When speaking English, they often speak with heavy East European and Yiddish accents. That helps demonstrate the issues many of the characters have with cultural assimilation.
Lemml’s accent, however, is the same in both Yiddish and English, signifying the consistency of his character, or his purity in understanding art, if you will.
English and Yiddish titles are used throughout, as the play shifts from place to place and through several decades. For those who know Hebrew characters and German (or some Yiddish), it is interesting to be able to read these in Yiddish to give the play extra cultural flavor.
One of the most controversial scenes of “God of Vengeance,” the rain scene, is talked about through the show. Yet, it is only depicted towards the end of the play, first in English, with amazing rain effects: as the scene plays out, water is poured from the stage ceiling as rain in utter realism to add beauty to the scene. The scene is later repeated in a Yiddish language scene, to great effect.
For an evening that includes Jewish music and culture, early-to-mid twentieth-century history, and an exploration of the question of to whom art and culture really belong, one can do no better than the current Arena Stage production of “Indecent.”