Theater Review | ‘Indecent:’ That’s the Story of Our Times

Indecent cast members dance on stage
Ensemble of Indecent (Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios)

There is a scene in The Arden Theatre Co.‘s production of Indecent, running through June 23 (directed by Rebecca Wright) that could serve as a synecdoche for the whole show. Rabbi Joseph Silverman (played by Ross Beschler) delivers a sermon to his congregants at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side. He tells them that each day he picks up the newspaper and reads about another ghastly crime – an assault on an old woman, a negligent mother, men committing sodomy – and has the same reaction each time. “I lift my face to the heavens and I pray, please, oh Lord, please do not let them be Jewish!” he cries. “This is what it means to be Jewish in America.”

This, the rabbi explains, is why he was justified in calling the local vice squad to have the Jewish actors in God of Vengeance – a recently opened Broadway play written by a Jewish playwright and featuring Jews behaving badly – arrested for obscenity. Only “in the hands of an American jury,” he says, will justice be done for the Jews. The year is 1923.

Indecent is the true-to-life story of Sholem Asch and his play, God of Vengeance, written in Yiddish in 1906. His play is the story of a beautiful romance between a Jewish pimp’s daughter and one of the prostitutes in the brothel, whose final embrace of one another finally causes the Jewish pimp to renounce God and hurl a recently purchased Torah on the ground, followed by curtains. When Asch (played by Jaime Maseda) stages the show in the great theater cities of Europe, his Yiddish-show-minus-the-Yiddishkeit is a massive hit; thank God, he didn’t listen to his coreligionists in the salon, who told him he was “pouring petrol on the flames of anti-Semitism,” and that his work was the creation of a so-called self-hater. “Burn it,” the owner of the salon tells Asch. Asch does him one better: He takes the show to America (the site of a rollicking, Yiddish “feh!” of a song, “Welcome to America: Vot Can You Makh?”, subtitled in English in a blessedly unobtrusive way).

Each of the actors in Indecent (aside from Lemml, the stage manager, played by Doug Hara) play several roles, which requires close attention; thus, for example, the role of Rifkele in God of Vengeance is played by Michaela Shuchman, who plays several different actresses playing Rifkele at various points. This element of the show first allows for through-lines to be drawn from character to character – Maseda plays both Asch and a would-be Asch named Jonathan Rosen, who approaches the aged Asch many years after God of Vengeance was first staged (more on that later). Beschler (in addition to his roles as Rabbi Silverman and Officer Bailie, who arrests the actors at the former’s request) plays an American Jewish producer of God of Vengeance, Harry Weinberger. Weinberger requires the lesbian romance – the center of the show – to be cut, and for the show to be translated into English for Broadway; explaining the cuts, he leans on Esther (Mary Elizabeth Scallen), who tells the cast that the show must be made palatable to the proverbial Mr. and Mrs. Smith from Connecticut. (In his turning his fellow Jews into the police for offending his sensibilities, Rabbi Silverman finally gets what he really wants: to become Mr. Smith).

It also allows for a few of the actors to show off some range, as their change from character to character allows the audience to see a full range of motion. Leah Walton is especially adept at this, in her transformation from a slinking German cabaret singer to a grande dame of the Berlin stage (“the legend is flesh and blood, I assure you”) to a wounded, reluctantly Americanizing Polish Jew named Dine (Dorothee, in her new country). Not to mention, of course, she’s also playing Manke, the prostitute who falls in love with the pimp’s daughter in God of Vengeance. Shuchman, too, slides effortlessly between playing Rifkele, or Asch’s loving wife, Madje, and, to great comic effect, Virginia McFadden, the arch-Gentile looking to shock her parents with her Jewish associations.

The central tension of the show is quite simple: Is airing the dirty laundry of the Jewish people a shanda fur die Goyim, und di Yidden, or is it legitimate artistic expression, shining a light on the parts of our communities and of ourselves that, ugly as they may be, need exploring? Asch is hardly the first writer to run up against this, nor is he the last – his story is Philip Roth’s story, is Hannah Arendt’s story, is even Larry David’s story. And as Indecent knows, when Asch is played by David Ingram at the end of the show, who had hitherto played the older male characters: even the young radicals become those who wish it would stay in-house, eventually. When Rosen (now played by Maseda) approaches the older Asch, with a newly written manuscript of God of Vengeance, Asch tells him: “In the words of a much wiser man—if I was you, burn it!”

There’s a famous story (well, famous to me, anyway) written in the diary of a friend of Friedrich Engels’ father. Engels’ father was distraught over his son’s political activity. “First my father endowed the Protestant parish in Barmen, then I built a church and now my son is tearing it down,” he tells the friend. The friend replies: “That’s the story of our times.” But that’s bogus, of course. It’s the story of all times, cycles of stifled young people rebelling against their stodgy elders, only to become them one day.

Indecent is also a show about language, translating ourselves for one another, sputtering through new languages in a new land as we struggle to say the same words we said back home. When characters speak in their native tongues, they speak flawless English; when they’re speaking a foreign one, they stammer and grind their teeth. How can we translate for others when we’re not even sure that we understand ourselves?

This is an often-joyous show, and the musicians who, like the rest of the cast, never leave the stage – Jason Gresl, Rachel Massey and Sarah Statler – make it even more so. It makes the inevitability of the ghetto liquidation near the end even more of a gut punch.

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