Playwright’s passion spurred Vogel’s ‘Indecent’

The Company in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Indecent, playing April 26 – May 25, 2019 at the Avenue of the Arts / Huntington Avenue Theatre. © Photo: T. Charles Erickson

BOSTON – One man’s passion spurred a woman’s passion, and the final result was a powerful, passionate piece of theater.

It all became “Indecent,” Paula Vogel’s look at a work written by a little-known Yiddish playwright that ended up reverberating through the years, and changing many lives.

Director Rebecca Taichman’s direction is pitch perfect in the story of “a little Jewish play”called “God of Vengeance” that debuted in 1907 and had an outsized impact.

It turned out to be life-changing for those involved in it, not in the least because it was shut down on Broadway in 1923 because of a lesbian kiss that, ironically was scaled back in an effort to keep the censors at bay.

Lest it be drenched in the turmoil and angst that befell both Polish writer Sholem Asch and his work,”Indecent” also combines generous doses of Yiddish dance and music in a celebration of a theatrical genre that has largely disappeared.

Adina Verson and Elizabeth A. Davis in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Indecent, playing April 26 – May 25, 2019 at the Avenue of the Arts / Huntington Avenue Theatre. © Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The 2017 Broadway production of “Indecent” won the Tony for Best Play, and the Huntington Theatre Company and Los Angeles-based Center Theatre Group have remounted that production at the Huntington Avenue Theatre.

It works on many levels – as a paean to Asch, as a testimony to the perils of artistic censorship and an equally artistic plea for sexual expression that was decades – make that many decades – ahead of its time.

Vogel is a past recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and Taichman won a Tony for her direction of the Broadway production

One of the strongest characters in “Indecent” is Richard Topol as Lemml, a tailor turned stage manager, who is transfixed by Asch’s work from the first moment he hears it at a reading in the Warsaw home of a noted actor, Rudolph Schildkraut (Harry Groener) and it becomes for Lemml an obsession. Asch (Joby Earle) is urged to burn his work, but he refuses, a decision he later regrets.

Music and dance are an integral part of the piece, with klezmer-flavored score delightfully performed by musicians \Matt Darriau Patrick Farrell and Lisa Gutkin with musical supervision by Lisa Gutkin and lively folk choreography by David Dorfman.The ensemble also includes Mimi Lieber, Steven Rattazzi, Elizabeth A. Davis and Adina Verson.

In interviews, both Vogel and Taichman have described the effect Asch’s work had on them as they discovered the manuscript decades apart in their respective graduate school libraries, while Taichman went on to find the transcript of the obscenity trial and convictions that followed the 1923 Broadway production. Several scenes from “God of Vengeance” are staged in “Indecent.”

During “Indecent,” Vogel will track the work across the decades from its birth in 1907 to Asch’s eventual disavowal of the play  amid his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a final indignity.

“God of Vengeance” was controversial by any standard, let alone those of 1907. The story was centered around a tyrannical Jewish patriarch, Yekel, whose family lives above his shop — which sells sex and happens to be a brothel.

To atone for his sins, Yekel wants to marry off his daughter, Rifkele, to a pious young man and has purchased an expensive Torah to hang above their bed.

After he discovers that Rifkele has entered into a sexual relationship with Manke, one of his whores, his wrath sees him desecrating not just his own family but the Torah too.

Asch eventually wishes he had followed earlier suggestions and burned the play even after it enjoyed success on the Yiddish stages of Europe, Russia and New York’s Bowery Theatre and then met ended up on Broadway — where, despite the objections of the cast, the lesbian love scene was toned down.

Earle’s portrayal of the young Asch is as a passionate advocate for his work, ultimately undone by the indignities he and his work suffered. 

And Groener’s Old Testament ire rings true as Yekel, his Torah raised like a cudgel, and as Schildkraut, an ego-driven leading man. Steven Rattazzi and Mimi Lieber also excel in various, harder-baked roles.

Davis and Verson are the actresses who play the actresses Manke, and the more awkward Rifkele, at the center of the controversy as the participants in the “rain scene,”a gorgeous staging of a passionate, erotic coming together of two women at a time when the very thought of it was enough to bring the full force of the law down upon it.

Vogel’s piece is very much a love letter to Asch and what he was saying then, and the piece reflects the delight of both Vogel and Taichman at finding the work and, in their own way, bringing it back to prominence.

Indecent.” Play by Paula Vogel. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Coproduction by Huntington Theatre Company and Center Theatre Group. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, through May 25. Tickets from $25. 617-266-0800,