While a play about a play might seem an unnecessarily theatrical self-congratulatory affair for actors, “Indecent” is filled with the poignant appeal of lost love and lost lives and yet allows us to celebrate the relatively widespread acceptance of lesbian love to today.
Everything is relative and recent news of a homophobic attack on a London bus last month is a reminder that lesbian love is still fraught with danger, even in a public bus. We have lesbians on TV shows now, but that doesn’t mean lesbian life is on the same level of heterosexual love in public. Yet that’s what makes “Indecent” both tender and timely–Asch was basing his lesbian lovers on his own heterosexual love for his wife.
So try to imagine what it was like when Sholem Asch (1880-1957) wrote “God of Vengeance” (Got fun nekome) in 1906. The story is about a grubby brothel owner who buys respectability by commissioning a Torah and arranging for his daughter to marry a yeshiva student. But his daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes, consummating that love after frolicking in the rain together.
The play opened a year later, and was translated and performed all over Europe and we see the acting troupe performing the last scene before curtain over and over again in what we’re told is St. Petersburg, then Constantinople and other European cities before the troupe finally arrives at Ellis Island and then to New York. New York and Broadway are a different story. Changes were made for the play’s Broadway run and a depressed Asch, stricken by the growing threat toward Jews in Europe, fails to keep on top of the production and signs away the revisions without fully understanding them.
“Indecent” begins with actors sitting on chairs, talking about dust while spreading sand. The stage is bare and the curtains don’t hide the lights. There’s a stage manager (Richard Topol) and we’re in “Our Town” country, but the world is seen from the stage.
“God of Vengeance” is conceived as a product of the love of a man and wife–Asch (Joby Earle) and Mathilde Shapiro (Adina Versos), Polish Jews who meet in Warsaw. Shapiro was the daughter of Polish-Jewish teacher and poet Menahem Mendel Shapiro. She sees part of their courtship, love and lust in the play’s two lesbian lovers. Their love has birthed a play.
Asch’s play is rejected by his mentor, I.L. Peretz, but finds support from his wife and a man who had never read a play before, Lemml (Topol). Taken to the stage, the play proves popular before its New York production. The women who play the lovers become lovers in real life, but when one can’t handle the American English, she’s dropped and replaced by a girl eager to shock her parents.
The play opens, but the cast and some of the production members are arrested and convicted on obscenity charges. They will later be acquitted but that’s not important to the play, “Indecent.”
After the police raid, Lemml loses faith in Asch and Asch is unable to warn Lemml of the growing anti-Semitism in their native Poland and all of Europe. By 1920, Adolph Hitler had adopted the swastika and by 1926, Hitler had published both volumes of “Mein Kampf.” Lemml returns to Poland and continues to arrange performances in Poland, even after he is confined to a Jewish ghetto.
We never see the rain scene until the very end when hope is almost lost. Yet the playwright Paula Vogel’s notes make it abundantly clear: Reading “God of Vengeance” was a revelatory moment in her life. The beauty of Asch’s play lived on and was transformative and the stage manager and super fan, Lemml demonstrates how words and a play can both change lives and bring comfort.
Directed with sensitivity by Rebecca Taichman with choreography by David Dorfman and accompanied by live music (score and original music by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva), “Indecent” is by turns lively and lustful. There’s humor and tragedy expertly balanced by Taischman and this ensemble cast.
“Indecent” runs June 5 through July 7, 2019 at the Ahmanson Theatre. For more information, please visit CenterTheatreGroup.org.