The Streaming Experience: Indecent: This Is What Theatre Exists For.
Many years ago, a good friend of mine said to me, “This is what theatre exists for” after seeing the Broadway musical, Once and also after the Roundabout Theatre production of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter. She’d say it again if and when she finally sees the intensely beautiful Indecent that is now streaming on BroadwayHD, filmed when it was playing at the Cort Theatre on Broadway. It’s in the blending of theatrical forms and ideas, symbols and styles, all entwined with wonder and creativity, to tell a story, unlike any other seen before. When I saw it live, I could feel the communal pull on our collective hearts, experiencing something that I thought was only available and reserved for live theatre. I had thought that no film could capture what this piece of theatrical art was trying to accomplish; the images, the art, and deep expression of emotionality and history bubbling up from the creators’ imagination into many many staggeringly beautiful moments, and I still somewhat hold onto that notion, although not entirely. Indecent had an Off-Broadway run in 2016 at the Vineyard, followed by its Broadway run in 2017. The play was nominated for three Tony Awards and won Best Direction of a Play for Rebecca Taichman and Lighting Design in a Play for Christopher Akerlind. The piece flourishes still in its streaming version on BroadwayHD, and the goal set out by the creative minds of Paula Vogel (playwright co-creator) and Rebecca Taichman (director, co-creator) remains clear and consistent. The visually powerful imagery and magic that cascades forward on that Broadway stage within the first five minutes, as the ashes fall, is still more emotionally engaging than most shows could hope for in their entirety. And that is some powerful stuff to behold either way.
Indecent follows the real life creation and production of the infamous play, God of Vengeance. This piece of playwriting changed the lives of all who were involved, from its first reading in 1906 Warsaw to its scandalous run on Broadway in 1923 and then beyond. This incendiary play by Sholem Asch is really the star of this magnificently powerful piece of theatre. To call it a play within a play seems to belittle what transpires in this 90-minute creation. Thanks to the impeccable direction of Taichman (NYTW’s Sing Street, PH’s Familiar), it’s a much grander and yet, simple and meaningful engagement of all our senses. The design is utterly magical in its threadbare creation of this play within a play starting with the simplistic, but beautiful staging design by Riccardo Hernandez (Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill), the subtle emotional lighting from Christopher Akerlind (RTC’s Merrily We Roll Along), the intense delicate costumes by Emily Rebholz (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen), the gloriously musical sound design from Matt Hubbs (Signature’s Boesman and Lena), and powerfully astute projections by Tal Yarden (Broadway’s The Crucible). With sensual and exciting live music (songs and music by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva; music coordinator: John Miller) performed by an insanely talented eclectic group of musicians, Matt Darriau (clarinet, bass, clarinet, tin whistle), Gutkin (violin, mandolin), and Halva (accordion, baritone ukulele, percussion) and luminous choreography weaved in by David Dorfman, the journey we take is beyond description and one that luckily for us all is available online.
After the initial introduction of the gaggle of glorious actors, in a manner that carries a tremendous amount of emotional punch, the tale begins with the passionate Asch, played to perfection by Max Gordon Moore (2nd Stage’s Man from Nebraska) reading his newly finished first play to his wife, the enthusiastic Madje, wonderfully portrayed by Adina Verson (PH’s Wives). From that point on, Madje is joined by others who see this play as a majestic piece of Yiddish theatre, breaking all barriers and stereotypes, while also challenging morality and what is considered decent. Many at the roundtable’s first reading that one night in Warsaw see this play as dangerous and blasphemous. The men in the literary circle privy to hearing it read out loud for the first time become enraged. They call it literally fuel for anti-Semitism as the play contains a central character, a Jewish patriarch, Yekel, who runs a brothel from his basement. This dramatic scenario, surprisingly, is not the straw that breaks the proverbial back of these men; it is the scene when Yekel’s virgin daughter falls madly and deeply in love with one of the prostitutes who work for him.
It is, as many proclaim later on (and one we will bare witness to), the most powerful scene in the whole play, watching with glory, the two women consummate their love for one another, kissing passionately during a rainstorm on the street outside the brothel, and giving their hearts to the other with utter pure abandonment. Enraptured by this emotionally charged scene, the two actresses, played most impressively by Verson and Katrina Lenk (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit) find a transportive depth portraying these two women lovers and actors on tour with this play. They forge a deep beautiful connection that parallels the love and desire they represent nightly on stage. As the older actress, Lenk, a kissing violin-playing wonder, embodies the passion and deep sense of guttural attachment to her lover, this play, and all that it stands for. Her performance is something beyond sensual. Her role as actress and as the part she is playing within Asch’s play is deeply moving and highly engaging, so much so that we can’t help but fall for her, for them, and for this play in its entirety.
One man who also falls for this scene and this play hard is Lemml, played with a sweet wide-eyed innocence by the magnificent Richard Topol (ATC’s Anatomy of a Suicide), a simple tailor who by luck of the draw and a family favor, finds himself at the initial first reading. Deeply moved by the depth of emotion that exists in this play, he devotes himself to Asch and the God of Vengeance, becoming the stage manager when it is produced in Berlin and beyond until the bitter end. In Berlin, the play is met with wild applause, and starring the famed actor Rudolph Schildkraut, played majestically by Tom Nelis (Broadway’s The Visit), the play begins its successful tour throughout Europe, eventually landing on the shores of America. The rest of the cast, Mimi Lieber and Steven Rattzaai, along with Lenk, Verson, Moore, and Nelis, all play numerous parts, magnificently and smoothly. It’s a seamless and spectacular wonder.
It is in New York City, Broadway in particular, that this Yiddish play loses its connection of its emotional center. The love of the two women is lost in order to make its way onto the more commercial Broadway stage, and with that edit, God of Vengeance loses its focus and inner connective power. But even with that heartbreaking sacrifice, the play with a play does not save itself from being shut down. The entire cast, along with its producer and one of the owners of the theater, are convicted on charges of obscenity. But this is not the end of the play, nor is it the end of the play within the play, as one would think. The ramifications continue. Asch falters in his faith in the humanity and the world. This is not because of his play’s run in with the law, but from what he witnesses all across Europe. So disturbed by what he has seen, he can’t even speak about the horrors to his faithful wife when he returns to Staten Island. The rise of anti-Semitism plays a substantial and deep role in this impressive piece as we watch the world move forward towards war. The last third of the play is powerfully upsetting, as it always is when we begin to see the Star of David being literally attached to the actors’ jackets.
The writing of Indecent at this stage wobbles a bit on its strong legs. Vogel (How I Learned To Drive) making her Broadway debut, gets lost a bit in all that she is trying to say at the end, but that doesn’t take away the intensity of the imagery, the music, and the story. When I saw it on Broadway, a woman one row ahead of me was crying in a way that seemed almost inconsolable. And I could at the time completely understand how the piece was able to take her there. I remember, as we are all told to at the beginning of this powerful play, a note in the program that I am simply going to quote here once again.
“The song ‘Wiegala‘, heard near the conclusion of Indecent, was written by Ilse Klien, a nurse at the Children’s hospital at Theresienstadt. She sang this lullaby for the children in the wards. When it came time for the children to be transported to Auschwitz, Ilse Klein volunteered to go with them. It is said she sang this song in line to the chambers.”
This is the kind heart at the core of play that utilizes a story and a song layered and stitched with such deep sadness as a thing of beauty. Indecent is meaningful and poetic, while also being heart wrenchingly sad and disturbing, in a style and structure that exemplifies all that is important and needed by us all in live theatre. Asch’s play, God of Vengeance, in a touching way, finally got its deserved Broadway run, and what a glorious package it arrived in. On stage, it was a marvel. On the small screen, it continues to resonate its power, but not as completely. Live, this production attacked all my senses. I smelt and felt the ashes enter my system, transforming my emotional insight and deepening my connection to humanity. Streaming it, it still touches and breaks our heart. It is worthy of our time (and our subscription to BroadwayHD), as it remains one of the best play I’ve seen in my lifetime.