Indecent is a strange play. It's like getting a gorgeously wrapped package and finding something insubstantial and vaguely disturbing inside the box.
The packaging of Indecent includes fantastic direction from Rebecca Taichman, engaging writing from Paula Vogel and a near-perfect ensemble of performers. But once you get past the seduction of the production, you have to wonder why so much talent was lavished on what is no more than a historical theatrical footnote.
That footnote is the closing of God of Vengeance on Broadway early in the last century for indecency. The play was apparently a big hit both way downtown (in the thriving Yiddish theater) and mid-downtown in Greenwich Village -- not to mention in many European cities -- but the move to Broadway seems unnecessary, unless the producer purposefully wanted to traffic in scandal.
What's most emotionally compelling about Indecent is also what's most intellectually disturbing about it.
Vogel and Taichman decided to frame their play in the shadows of the holocaust and the rise of anti-semitism in the 1920s. The latter part of Indecent suggests that God of Vengeance was performed in the Lodz ghetto in Poland -- along with what I assume were many plays of the Yiddish Theater.
So one must assume that God of Vengeance was an extraordinarily influential and important play for the Jewish community. Alas, it was not. What it was, to be sure, was audacious and scandalous. But high art -- no. It's story revolves around a Jewish man running a brothel in the basement of his house for profit so his family can have many material things others cannot, including a beautiful Torah. His daughter and one of his prostitutes fall in love and have a sexual encounter outside in the rain, in what is claimed to be the first lesbian scene in modern theatrical literature, replete with the daughter saying to the whore "I want to taste you." The father is so enraged when he learns of this affair that he casts his daughter to work in his brothel and casts his Torah into the street.
That might be a shocking play today -- imagine it in the early 1900's. While we can layer on the play a contemporary view of sapphic love I doubt that too many audiences shared our liberal view of the subject. Rather, the play's success was due to its shock value -- not it's poetic ambitions or cultural importance.
Imagine, though, if the play were not written by a Jew. Imagine if it were written by a non-Jew, showing a general audience that this is how the dirty, sex-obsessed, licentious and money-grubbing Jews behave. It would be a prime example of anti-semitic propaganda and, in fact, the way the Jews are depicted in the play bears too close a similarity to the way Jews were portrayed in proto-Nazi propaganda leading up to World War Two.
And that is what bothers me about Indecent. It lionizes Sholem Asch (the playwright) and his play, without addressing any of the disturbing aspects of it. Promotional materials talk about the scandalous obscenity trial of God of Vengeance -- but Indecent spends almost no time on that trial. Indecent shows us the tragedy of the performers in the throes of virulent anti-semitism, without exploring the paradox or irony of their making a living off of an anti-semitic play.
Of course, all of this is provocative, and provocative plays should be encouraged on Broadway. So kudos to Daryl Roth, Liz McCann and Cody Lassen for bringing Indecent to Broadway. And kudos to an astonishingly beautiful production. I just wish the play hadn't left so many disturbing questions unasked. - Mark Weston
Mr. Weston is a cultural gadfly and world famous purveyor of happiness. He lives in New York with his family and dog and occasionally dallies in writing plays.