Theater Review: Another View of “Indecent” — Flat and Obvious

By Gerald Peary

In the case of a scene set in the Lodz Ghetto, the lineup of characters on the way to the concentration camps veered, for me, close to Holocaust porn.

Indecent by Paula Vogel. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. A co-production between the Center Theatre Group and the Huntington Theatre Company at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, through May 25.

A scene from the Huntington Theatre production of “Indecent.”

What to do when you’re sitting in the midst of a standing ovation, and you don’t feel like rising up at all? That happened to me at a recent performance of Paula Vogel’s play, Indecent, staged by the Huntington Theatre Company. The actors had hardly come on stage for the curtain call when the crowd rose en masse to their feet, cheering wildly for what the Globe’s drama critic, Dan Aucoin, labeled a transcendent, you-won’t-ever-forget theatrical experience. But I’d found the play, though ambitious, disappointingly flat and obvious in Vogel’s writing, and the production directed by Rebecca Taichman sentimental and sometimes manipulative. In the case of a scene set in the Lodz Ghetto, the lineup of characters on the way to the concentration camps veered, for me, close to Holocaust porn.

I can understand why Vogel was thrilled, as a student “coming out” at Cornell, to discover in the university library Sholem Asch’s forgotten 1907 play, God of Vengeance. Its center is an undisguised lesbian love affair, wholeheartedly approved of by the Polish-Jewish playwright. What other classic drama anywhere has such an episode? Neither young woman in the play feel guilty or remorseful about their illicit passion. What a contrast to such other pioneering takes on lesbianism as Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour or The Well of Loneliness, filled with denial and self-hatred and ending in suicide.

What Vogel learned about the history of Asch and God of Vengeance becomes the main narrative of Indecent. The play, written by Asch in Yiddish, was rejected by his literary compatriots in Poland as being bad for the Jews. So Asch left Warsaw for hip Berlin, where the play became a mainstay of the local Yiddish theatre, and touring companies acted it around Europe. Then Asch immigrated to America, and his play proved a favorite of the New York Yiddish stage. But when God of Vengeance was brought to Broadway in 1923 in an English-language version, the key lesbian scene was excised by the producers. Even so stripped, the play was stopped for its run by the New York police. An obscenity trial ensued, because this first occasion ever of two women kissing in an American play was considered blasphemous.

Besides being far ahead of its time in its sexual politics, how good a drama is God of Vengeance? I haven’t read it, but based on the snippets that we see sprinkled through Indecent, this is no Spring’s Awakening. This is no Ibsen. This is no Sholem Aleichem. Although Asch was a literary man, his play seems pitched to the uneducated Yiddish-speaking masses. It’s a heavy-handed melodrama. How else to describe a schlock narrative about the Jewish owner of a brothel, a shtetl Shylock, protecting his virginal daughter from the sins of the world—until she hooks up with a heart-of-gold prostitute?

The Indecent production does show a touch of a sense of humor in director Taichman replaying four times the shamelessly kitschy concluding scene of God of Vengeance, in which the righteous, vengeful brothel owner holds a Torah as a weapon over his cowering wife and daughter. Freeze frame! LOL! But other than that, Indecent honors God of Vengeance too much as a play of merit and meaning. Paula Vogel spent her youth reading lesbian pulp fiction. How much more fun if you felt that Vogel adored Asch’s drama even while acknowledging it’s a trashy one, a creaky soap opera?

Nowhere is the placing of God of Vengeance on a pedestal more glaring than with the infamous lesbian embrace. Vogel puts off and puts off offering it to us, finally placing it in her queasy scene in the Lodz ghetto, where the trapped Jews act out Asch’s play. With the Nazis looming outside, two barefoot young women in nightgowns prance about, smooch, and get wet under a sensuous rainstorm, water dripping down from behind the proscenium at the Huntington.

This is Vogel’s view of Asch in her program notes: “I have not read as beautiful a scene between two women, one that accorded their love the pure desire of Romeo and Juliet on the balcony.” Vogel considers it Shakespearean. I found Asch’s words to be soupy ones, and the lyrical lesbian scene an overwrought payoff as acted out on the Huntington stage.

Indecent surrounds the interludes from God of Vengeance with a perfunctory recounting of Asch’s adult life, from his writing the play in Poland to him being a grumpy old man living in the USA. He’s a haunted soul in the 1950s who (Vogel’s most dubious, purple-prose line) “has lost his audience. 6 million of them.” There’s a gratuitous scene of singing in a Berlin cabaret and another one of Eugene O’Neill holding forth in a tavern. There’s a hokey staging device throughout, where the actors freeze in place, stopping whatever they’re doing, and a text above announces, “A blink in time.” But nothing is revealed in these tableaus. I feel they’re in there to impress the audience.

Finally, Paula Vogel should have known better than to inflict on us Lemml, a probably made-up character, a stereotyped homely little Jew who appears throughout as the sentimental soul of the play, the man who, unlike Asch at moments, never sells out. I’m almost surprised that the actor playing him didn’t get his own curtain call so the audience could applaud his bottomless integrity.

Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.


  1. Bill Marx on May 5, 2019 at 1:12 pm

    Editor’s note; I didn’t see the Huntington Theatre Company production of Indecent. But I did recently view PBS’s 2017 version of the show and find Gerry’s points very well-taken. I would add that Asch is a far more ambiguous (and interesting) figure than he is portrayed in the play, particularly given the controversial task he took on in the post-war era — to bring Judaism and Christianity closer together through his novels on Jesus and Mary.

    I have read the God of Vengeance, as research for reviewing Donald Margulies’ version of the play, which was produced in 2002 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Gerry is quite right — the original is a geriatric sudser, unstageable today. I reviewed the WTF production for WBUR. Margulies couldn’t make the heavy-handed drama palatable, which might explain why, to my knowledge, the re-vamped script has not been produced since. Surely a celebration of the Yiddish stage, which Indecent claims to be, should be dedicated to its better efforts — not its mediocre curiosities, no matter how commercially successful or shocking, once upon a time.

    • Anne on May 25, 2019 at 9:33 pm

      Couldn’t agree more with both Peary’s review and Marx’s comment following it. I felt like I was being hit over the head with a rubber mallet, and not in a funny way. The fragmented tale within a tale, with its most melo-comedic moments repeated over and over like a maddening play-rehearsal—I felt that the script and it’s actors were tripping all over each other and themselves. I know little about Yiddish theatre, (would like to know more) or about Sholem Asch, but I found myself wondering about just where the soul of a play that runs the byline “No art without passion” had disappeared to. Holocaust Porn, yes, among many other things. Vaudeville, Borscht Belt– not enough just to create a pastiche of these genres. I too crouched in my chair at the end as people stood up all around me. Were we in the same room? The lesbian theme which the audience was teased with, up until the big reveal at the end, was not significant enough to be the fulcrum around which the narrative(s) turned. Lots of artifice does not equal passion, character development and depth.

      • Gerald Peary on June 12, 2019 at 8:05 pm

        Thanks, Ann, for your perceptive comments , and for making me feel less alone for being horrified at the standing ovation.

  2. Tom on May 25, 2019 at 9:57 pm

    Strange that two esteemed critics seem to focus so myopically on the quality or lack thereof of the play within the play, “God of Vengeance.” Forest for trees criticism! “Indecent” is a theatrical masterwork about faith in and betrayal of Art, of the transcendent capacity within us. It’s the sunrise scene between playwright and stage manager- and the choice each makes subsequently. I suppose if the beauty of the “rain scene” didn’t move you, the transcendent element is lost to quibbles about an obviously melodramatic Yiddish drama. Perhaps Eugene O’Neill didn’t spell it out clearly enough?

    • Bill Marx on May 26, 2019 at 9:16 am

      If Indecent is about “faith in and betrayal of Art” then where is the Art? Unless we accept a middlebrow notion of Art as some sort of airily progressive ideal of Love? I don’t, though that is where most of Boston’s theater critics plight their troth. So much for the Greeks, Shakespeare, Ibsen, etc. As for the play’s Eugene O’Neill, my impression is that he was primarily arguing for the Yiddish drama’s social/political importance. The real O’Neill — for whom existence is one long ‘pipe-dream’ — would have scoffed at the “transcendental capacity within us.”

      • Tom on June 2, 2019 at 5:51 pm

        Ah yes, the “middlebrow notion of Art” that you are combating with your cynical sword, Bill. Fight on! But perhaps you should be familiar enough with O’Neill’s work to know that a major theme in his work is in fact the transcendent capacity of Art! (see: A Touch of the Poet and Long Days Journey Into Night) It seems to me you misinterpret something central about O’Neill and his work… As to “Indecent,” if the ‘rain scene’ did not move you as beautiful on any level, you might at least understand that this is the intention of the scene and it’s beauty is transformative to Lemll who dedicates and ultimately sacrifices his life to it’s performance in “God of Vengeance.” By pointed contrast, the playwright Sholem Asch betrays his own play by refusing to defend it in court. A profound and moving masterwork, “Indecent.”

        • Bill Marx on June 2, 2019 at 6:24 pm

          No sword here — only a MacBook Pro. And why is it cynical to see that the truth that art conveys could embrace intractability, not inspiration? And to assert that Indecent is far from “a masterwork.” Not sure what you mean by the transcendent “capacity” of art — though you are right that O’Neill believed that art could convey the truth — that there is no truth, at least not the kind that gives us solace from our illusions. Lemil would be more moving to me if he was a fleshed-out character rather than a one-note ‘everyman’ dramatic device (a through line for audiences).

          Ironically, you make my case regarding Asch — an intriguingly contradictory figure, a successful Jewish artist who, after World War II, welcomed a rapprochement with Christianity. And was condemned for it by parts of the Jewish community. A good subject for a play — alas, too complicated, too challenging, not inspiring enough ….

    • Gerald Peary on June 12, 2019 at 8:04 pm

      But the playwright doesn’t regard Asch’s play as a piece of kitsch, milking it for the supposed transcendence. But you can’t get transcendence by quoting a shlocky play. Yes, the lesbian scene should be commended for being a first, but it’s a shlocky, shmaltzy first–and made even more so by that banal hosing of the stage.

      • Ron on October 22, 2019 at 4:43 pm

        I have just come across this dialogue and find myself very interested in Mr. Peary’s dismissinveness toward Sholem Asch’s work, characterizing the Rain scene as schlocky, scahmaltzy, and banal. Mr. Peary seems to be very appreciative of the work of Eugene O’Neill. I am, as well. In fact, I am a great admirer of the work of O’Neill, yet even in my great admiration, I cannot deny that much of O’Neill’s early work, and indeed, much of his later work, can, by today’s standards seem to be schlocky, schmaltzy and yes, even banal. Read the monologues in “The Hairy Ape,” performed at Provincetown just before “God of Vengeance,” to find myriad examples of schlock, scmaltz and banality to the 21st Century ear. Even the Mother’s final monologue in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (a masterwork of 20th Century Theater) can be heard, by many in this century as schlocky, schmaltzy and a little banal. …”Oh, yes, then I married James Tyrone, and was so happy for a time…” I do not claim that Asch was as good a playwright as O’Neill, or anywhere near as important a playwright as so many other better writers. But just because someone is an important playwright does not mean their work is beyond schlock, schmaltz and banality for those who read it in 2019, no matter how groundbreaking their work might have been. Have you read any Ibsen lately, for example? How about William Inge? (Come back, Little Sheba!) Or Tennesee Williams end of “Glass Menagerie’? (Blow out your candle, Laura…and so, goodnight.) The depth of our experience and the breadth of our academic knowledge can so often produce cynicism and deep dismissiveness. Shakespeare, that great purveyor of schlock, schmaltz and banality said it well, I think, through Rosalind in “As You Like That.” When Jacques says, “I have gained my experience,” she responds, “And your experience has made you sad.” And a little cynical as well, perhaps?

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