VSTemporary plays can fall into an intriguing conversation. Covering the same five decades of Jewish history as Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, Tony Prize-winning Paula Vogel’s Indecent also begins with a controversial text read privately in a European home. Stoppard made his debut in Vienna in 1900 with characters scandalized by Schnitzler’s screenplay, which became La Ronde; Vogel departs from Poland in 1907 with a table reading of God of Vengeance, a drama by a young Yiddish writer, Sholem Asch.
Almost unknown today, but successful enough in the world to reach Broadway in 1923, Asch’s work attracted opposing intolerance – with anti-Semites finding it too Jewish, Orthodox worshipers not Jewish enough – but thematically it was early tolerant. A lesbian love story subplot – the first on the American scene – brought the U.S. courts and Senate to the doorstep.
Structurally, Indecent is a play within a play, postulating that we see performances for many years by a Yiddish theater company of a production on the life, despite numerous death threats, of God of Vengeance. . With spectacular dexterity of voice (speech and song), body and costume, seven actors share, in only spasmodic confusion, 42 roles, ranging from a Warsaw tailor to a Nobel Prize-winning American playwright. A trio of klezmer bands are integrated into a Rebecca Taichman production full of visual hits. The projected text falls on faces and the stage like a snowstorm.
As the years go by like a bomb, the defining moral horror of the 20th century awaits the end of the fuse. After exploring – from perspectives fresher than Stoppard – the histories of anti-Semitism, Jewish culture, and the debate between assimilation and the celebration of identity, Vogel then includes (as Leopoldstadt tactfully avoids ) gruesome 1940s imagery so familiar from other plays and films that an indirect reference might have been more effective.
Although ending in the 1950s, Indecent casts shadows beyond. Philip Roth, like Asch, subsequently suffered the double risk of being attacked by anti-Semites and accused of anti-Semitism by some Jews. Parallels can also be seen with the current cultural conflict over what to say and by whom. Indecent is an intelligent play staged with the panache of a musical.