Review: Vogel’s ‘Indecent’ adds humor and insight to past

May 18, 2016 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) — Paula Vogel’s powerful new play “Indecent” is truly a celebration of the power of theater. A seasoned cast presents the story of a controversial early 20th century play simply and intimately, through seamlessly entwined music, dance and narrative.

With humor and insight, Vogel shows the passion maintained by the original troupe of actors in performing the work over many years in increasingly difficult times. “Indecent” opened Tuesday at the Vineyard Theatre.

Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “How I learned to Drive,” co-created the show with its director, Rebecca Taichman, basing the “play with music” around a 1906 Yiddish play by novelist Sholem Asch called “God of Vengeance.”

Taichman deftly combines lyrical imagery, hypnotic choreography by David Dorfman, and atmospheric folk music performed on the bare, wood-planked stage by three klezmer musicians, to recreate a world now lost.

Asch daringly wrote about a Jewish brothel owner in Poland whose 17-year-old daughter was secretly having a love affair with a prostitute. The play was performed successfully throughout Europe, and remained popular when the troupe took it to America.

However, when it moved from downtown New York to Broadway in 1923, it was abruptly closed despite the self-censoring removal of a pivotal scene with the female lovers. The cast and producer were convicted of giving an immoral performance, and most returned to performing the play in Europe.

After slowly shaking sawdust out of their sleeves in a dance of reawakening, Vogel’s cast energetically enacts that story and others, skillfully time-shifting while using only suitcases and their contents for props. They perform crucial scenes from Asch’s play while humorously portraying the original troupe’s geographic and emotional voyage, against the larger backdrop of history. Clever text projections detailing date and place include the audience with many “a blink in time.”

Richard Topol is delightfully ardent as Lemml, a young man transformed by a reading of Asch’s play. As stage manager, he lovingly shepherds the work for years until the final performances in an attic in a Jewish ghetto.

Topol’s six castmates are impeccable in multiple roles, with Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson bring graceful purity to the lovers. Tom Nelis, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore and Steven Rattazzi provide humor and gravitas in equal measure.

The irony that portraying a lesbian love affair was the “indecency” some authorities focused on, amid pogroms, wars and the rise of Naziism, is part of the oblivion to tragedy that Vogel threads throughout the story.

Calling to mind the sands of time, the dust of history and even something far more sinister, the sawdust pouring from the sleeves of the cast is also a compelling visual metaphor for the enduring, enriching power of storytelling.