Theater review by Adam Feldman
The very notion of live theater contains an intimation of its future: dead theater. Now the play is before us, moving and breathing along with its audience; then it is done, and banished to the shadow realm of memory. This is true not just of a single performance but also of the run of a production—even The Phantom of the Opera will one day throw in the mask—and, writ larger, of entire theater worlds. Sometimes such worlds age and fade with time; sometimes, as with Yiddish theater, they are violently erased.
Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman’s gorgeous Indecent is written on the palimpsest of that erasure. The play tracks the history of Sholem Asch’s drama God of Vengeance, the story of a Jewish flesh peddler whose daughter has a lesbian love affair with one of his prostitutes, from its first stirrings in Warsaw through its controversial 1923 stint on Broadway and beyond. (Partly at the urging of Jewish leaders, who worried that the show would fan anti-Semitism, the New York cast was prosecuted for obscenity.) History, for 100 minutes, returns to life.
I was deeply moved by the play when it was at the Vineyard Theatre last year. On Broadway, with the same wonderful ensemble cast, it fills a much larger space without losing its essential intimacy. The script is Vogel’s, the staging Taichman’s, but the two are so lovingly intertwined as to be almost inseparable. The seven actors—Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Richard Topol and Adina Verson—weave multiple roles into a seamless whole. The same is true of the music that flows through the show, performed by onstage musicians: violinist Lisa Gutkin and accordionist Aaron Halva, who cowrote the original klezmer-accented score, and clarinetist Matt Darriau.
Rich in sympathy and humor, Indecent is as captivating the second time as the first. And there is a special benefit to seeing it in a larger theater: The size of the audience facilitates group dynamics (laughter, applause, palpable silence) that heighten the experience. At the start, when an actor playing a stage manager introduces the other actors to us—not as themselves, but by the names of the Yiddish troupe members they are playing in one of the play’s shows-within-a-show—the audience applauds them as though it were applauding real performers. At that moment, among others, the spectators undergo a kind of transformation ourselves; sitting in for the now-lost audience for Yiddish theater, we channel its spirits. An elegant tribute to things that vanish in the blink of a historical eye, Indecent is a memorial that feels like a blessing.
Cort Theatre (Broadway). By Paula Vogel. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.
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