By Patrick Hurley
Clocking in at one hour and forty-five minutes, Paula Vogel’s Indecent, playing now at the Ahmanson theatre, packs as many themes and covers as much ground as probably theatrically possible in that time.
Opening on a Brechtian world, where an ensemble of actors and musicians, all in an upstage line, begin to come forth to tell the story of Sholem Asch’s masterwork, an early 20th century Yiddish play called God of Vengeance. During the prologue, as the actors move their arms about, dust spills out from their sleeves, a manifestation meant to connect them to their Jewish past, a past of persecution and loss.
God of Vengeance proved to be a huge hit in Europe and transitioned successfully to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1922. Then, as its trajectory was leading to Broadway, the producers decided that a love scene between two women was too controversial and would probably be seen as “Indecent,” so the scene, which would become known as the “rain scene” was cut from the play, much to the chagrin of some of the cast members. And even after the cuts were made, the cast was arrested and the show shut down six weeks after the play opened on Broadway at the Apollo theater, on the grounds that it was morally offensive.
Playwright Paula Vogel weaves Brechtian theatrical devices as interludes between scenes. These include dances and songs, and are all seeming to serves as a thread of contextual, if not cultural adherence to the theme of assimilation and loss. She also, in true Brecht fashion, goes full meta poking fun at theatrical devices and theater in general. She also gives the actors a distinction between Yiddish and English. Yiddish is spoken in the actor’s natural accents, whereas when the characters speak English, they use broken accents.
Projections, wonderfully designed by Tal Yarden, on three different parts of the stage, mark the titles for scenes, and include the use of a time-travelling device that Ms. Vogel has written out as a “blink in time”- where the actors freeze briefly, thus allowing for time to pass in front of us without gimmicky lighting effect. And about the lighting! Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design is sensational. It imbues the piece with many moods meant to reflect the many themes and it’s almost always gorgeous to look at. The entire production is infused with such adoration for theater and for Asch’s play that it often teeters on the edge of sentimentality. But luckily, in the capable hands of director Rebecca Taichman, and penned with great care by Paula Vogel, the play is at once eloquent, funny, relevant, and edifying. And it works to achieve its nostalgia rather than fall into sentiment. And the entire ensemble, all of whom play multiple characters, are excellent. All of this would make this production a soaring success.
But there is a wonderful theatrical bonus, for anyone who loves theater, or a great catharsis for that matter, and that is the inclusion of the infamous “rain scene” from the original text of God of Vengeance. A scene that has never been performed on a Broadway stage until Indecent opened- which also happens to be, amazingly enough, Paula Vogel’s Broadway debut.
The play excels when Ms. Vogel is writing new spins on old devices. Diving into the passion and dedication of a group of artists and showing the immutable power of art as a political tool. Where it sometimes lags is near the end, it has a few excess scenes that stop the action completely and serve only as exposition or as an attempt to evoke. This feels personal to the author, and so it is completely forgivable, especially because the last image, fraught with meaning and symbolism marrying every strong element this production offers, from lighting, scenic design, directing, acting and writing, is simply breathtaking.
By Paula Vogel
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Opens Sunday, June 9 at 2 p.m. (Previews began June 5) Through July 7, 2019 Ahmanson Theatre
Run Time and Intermission: 1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Ticket Prices: $30 – $155
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre
At The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.