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.
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.