September 21, 2019

Yiddish Theater Rises from the Ashes in ‘Indecent’

The company of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” Photo by Craig Schwartz

The production of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” is, at its core, an homage to Yiddish theater. You’d be forgiven, however, if at first glance it appears anything but. 

Currently playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, “Indecent” is based on Sholem Asch’s 1906 Yiddish play “God of Vengeance,” which tells the story of a Jewish man who runs a brothel out of his home. He buys a Torah scroll for his daughter’s upcoming wedding to a “nice Jewish boy,” only to discover she has fallen in love with one of his prostitutes who lives downstairs. There’s no reconciliation here, as the father casts his daughter (together with the Torah scroll) below stairs with the prostitutes. 

Asch wrote his daring, controversial play, which showed two women kissing onstage, in his home in Warsaw, Poland. It became a huge hit in Europe, transferring to off-Broadway, where it also ran in English, before moving to Broadway in 1923. To appease Broadway audiences, Asch was forced to agree to significant cuts, including deleting the entire romantic scene between the two women. Following the show’s first Broadway performance, cast and crew were arrested, tried and ultimately convicted of “an indecent, immoral and impure theatrical performance.”

“Indecent,” directed by Rebecca Taichman (who won a Tony Award for the show in 2017), is a reminiscence and charts the history of “God of Vengeance,” alongside excerpts from the play itself, as told by the show’s stage manager, Lemml (Richard Topol, reprising his Broadway performance).

It’s an achingly poignant look at a slice of Jewish life, when Yiddish theater was at its zenith. By turns funny and heartrending, “Indecent” literally resurrects from the ashes a Yiddish theater troupe and provides a glimpse into a world destroyed by the Nazis.

Vogel was in Los Angeles for the opening of the production and spoke several days later with the Journal by phone from her home in Rhode Island. 

“What I wanted to do from the very beginning,” Vogel, 67, said, “was for us as an American audience to feel at the end of the evening that we can speak Yiddish. If you want to destroy a people, you have to destroy the arts and literature and the language, and that’s why [doing this play] was important to me — that we recognize what was lost but we can also recognize that the culture remains and continues.”

First produced in 2015, this is now the sixth “Indecent” production with the core cast. It has been “a labor of love,” said Vogel, who was raised by a Jewish father and a Catholic mother in Maryland and grew up eating “gefilte fish, chopped liver and Creole food.”

Noting that she was raised with “guilt from both sides,” Vogel’s journey to  “Indecent” was aided by her late brother, Carl, who died from AIDS in 1988. 

Said Vogel, “[Carl] started reading Holocaust literature in his last year of life and he said to me, ‘Do you realize that one half of our family has been killing the other half for as far back as we can go?’ And that stayed with me.”

“What I wanted was for us as an American audience to feel at the end of the evening that we can speak Yiddish. If you want to destroy a people, you have to destroy the arts and literature and the language, and that’s why [doing this play] was important to me.” — Paula Vogel

Vogel had already developed an interest in Yiddish theater as a graduate student at Cornell University in 1974, when her professor suggested she read “God of Vengeance.” As both a Jew and a lesbian, Vogel said she felt the professor gave her the play to say, “It’s safe to be who you are here.” “I think it was a very lovely act that he gave me this script,” she said. 

After grad school, Vogel lived in New York for seven years “and that Yiddish legacy is very much alive,” she said. “You can still feel the whispers and ghosts  [of Yiddish theater] on the Lower East Side.”

When Taichman reached out to Vogel in 2010 to help her put together a production of “Indecent”(Taichman read “God of Vengeance in 1997 at Yale Drama School and wrote her thesis on the obscenity trial), Vogel said, “I don’t think I want to write a play about the censorship trial alone. I think there’s a bigger story that I want to tell.”

That bigger story is told in powerful, visual vignettes that stay with you long after the play is over. And that, Vogel said, is exactly what she wanted. “I wrote this play more on visuals that I saw in my head. The first picture I saw was a dusty Yiddish theater troupe in an attic in the ghetto in 1943. That’s where the play began in my mind.”

Asked why she thinks “Indecent” has been so successful, racking up a slew of awards, Vogel said, “If you want to say something that speaks to as many people in the audience as you can, you have to be specific. So by illuminating what happened in the 1920s to Jewish immigrants, hopefully we are also illuminating what is happening to immigrants all over America today. Our need to support and open our community to the immigrants in our midst is critical right now. Everybody is hungry to feel the power of community.”

This sense of community is what counterbalances some of the shocking, powerful images that take place onstage in “Indecent,” including the repetition of a scene where the enraged brothel owner raises a Torah scroll above his head and prepares to hurl it.  

“That was my idea,” Vogel said. “One of the things I think that the play shows is the lesbianism was a pretext to close [the play].”

Indeed, one of the most beautiful, memorable scenes is of the two women, played by Elizabeth A. Davis and Adina Verson, coming together in the rain. Said Vogel, “To this day, I still feel that the second act [of the play] is the greatest love scene between two women I have ever read.” 

In addition, Vogel said the journey she has been on with “Indecent” has helped her to connect more with her Jewish roots. “I listened to over 600 klezmer songs and delved into the history of klezmer music. I stalked Lisa Gutkin of the Klezmatics, who had never written for theater before.” (Gutkin wrote the score and the original music for “Indecent” and plays the violin, mandolin and percussion during the show).  

Then, last summer, Vogel went to the mikveh and became a member of Temple Beth El in Providence, R.I. “I had an incredible conversation for two years with my rabbis and I’ve loved every moment of the education classes and discussions,” she said. “Even though [writing] the play is over for me, the gifts that it has given me will continue for the rest of my life.”

“Indecent” runs through July 7 at the Ahmanson Theatre. For tickets and information, visit the website.