Paula Vogel’s ‘Indecent’ is a wildly passionate tribute to another play: Sholem Asch’s 1907 Yiddish drama ’God of Vengeance’.
And it’s hard not to be swept away – veteran US playwright Vogel makes no effort to conceal her love for her subject. Vogel’s play and Rebecca Taichman’s production celebrate ‘God of Vengeance’ as both a landmark work of lesbian literature and a titanic piece of Yiddish art intimately tied to the fortunes of Europe’s Jews.
Formally, it’s essentially a biography of Asch’s play. It starts in Warsaw, 1907, when the youthful author and his wife Madzhe are giddy with excitement about the possibilities of his new work. This horrifies the local Jewish intelligentsia, who are alarmed that a drama set in a Yiddish brothel featuring a lesbian love story is terrible PR for their embattled community.
Following the play’s eventual European success, ’Indecent’ sweeps on into the ’20s, when the Aschs uproot to New York. There, ‘God of Vengeance’ becomes a hit on the Yiddish-language stage, then the English-language one, then finally a bowdlerised version moves to Broadway, where a moral panic fuelled by fearful local rabbis leads to the entire cast being arrested for indecency.
It’s a wonderful story, most of it true, including the final section where we see ‘God of Vengeance’ illegally performed in Łódż ghetto, on the cusp of the Holocaust. Yes, Vogel oversimplifies the arguments of the play’s detractors, and focuses her vindication of it on the queer-heavy second act (generally held as the best bit of an uneven work). And though Finbar Lynch is terrific as Lemmi, a rube from the Polish shtetl who happens to be present at ‘God of Vengeance’s first reading in a Warsaw salon and becomes its most ferocious champion, I’m pretty sure the character is fictional. His Zelig-like appearance at every stage of the play’s story strains credulity somewhat.
But while it might feel a bit more exposed in a bigger, drier staging, Taichman’s intimate Menier production is pure magic, with an excellent, multinational, multitalented (lots of singing, lots of dancing, lots of playing of instruments), largely Jewish ensemble tearing joyously through the material, from an opening scene in which dust literally falls away from each actor as they tear the play back from the ashes of history, through a riotously sexy and absurd Berlin bit and on to the talkier US sections. I’m not sure if ‘God of Vengeance’ is quite the masterpiece that ‘Indecent’ makes it out to be. And I’m not sure that it matters. Vogel makes you believe it stood for something extraordinary, a beacon in the darkness of history, that should still mean something today.