One of the reasons Shakespeare’s history plays are the greatest examples of their genre is that he took care to write about events no one could possibly remember. (They were set eons before his own day.) Contemporary playwrights interested in history, especially American history, have a harder task, with only two centuries to exploit — and no kings. Still, they keep trying. This spring alone, we have on Broadway three new works that set out to tell essentially true stories of the recent past, only one of which is thoroughly successful. That one is J.T. Rogers’s Oslo, in which the secret negotiations that led to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accords are used as the framework for a kind of exploded documentary, credibly filling in blanks in the record to make an already surprising story astonishing. Less convincing, though it just won the Pulitzer prize, is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which is based on intensive research into Rust Belt deindustrialization but attenuates its power in the very process of forcing the facts into drama. And now comes Paula Vogel’s Indecent; taking a huge slice of cultural and social history as its subject, it is in some ways the most ambitious of the three, and in all ways the least convincing.
I say that with sorrow and surprise — and yet not too much surprise, because I already found Indecent more worthy than fine when I saw it Off Broadway last year. But a second viewing of the play, now pumped up and retuned for Broadway, only makes its problems more obvious. Happily, its good qualities are enhanced as well, including an imaginative staging by Rebecca Taichman, beautiful klezmer-inspired music by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, and, most fundamentally, the depth of its engagement with a recalcitrant subject. That subject is itself a play: a 1907 Sholem Asch melodrama called Got fun Nekome in the original Yiddish and The God of Vengeance when it wound up on Broadway in 1923. On the simplest level, Indecent traces that play’s unlikely history from its first reading in a Jewish salon in Warsaw to its premiere at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin to its international fame and eventual infamy. In a ghostly postscript, Vogel even spins out its trajectory to a performance by a ragtag troupe on the edge of extinction in the Lodz ghetto in 1943.
By that point, Asch had disowned the play as a youthful misstep. And truth be told its story — of a Jewish man who pretends to piousness in his living room but runs a brothel in his basement — is not very convincing, even as melodrama. A recent production by the New Yiddish Rep revealed the clunkiness of its pairings of respectability and disrepute, the obviousness of its nearly mustache-twirling take on hypocrisy. The only part of the play that still seemed fresh and surprising was the part that engendered its infamy and sparked Vogel’s interest: a romance between the brothel-keeper’s virginal daughter and one of his prostitutes downstairs. How, more than a hundred years ago, did Asch dare dream up the love scene in which the two girls caress each other and kiss in the rain, not only without prurience or judgment but as a symbol of something pure and beautiful in an ugly, debased world?
Not everyone saw it that way at the time; the lesbian kiss that had impressed or perhaps excited European audiences became a scandal on Broadway. Upper East Side rabbis railed from the pulpit against the damage it would do to their project of presenting Jews as paragons of good citizenship. Then, as Vogel demonstrates, the police got involved. Two weeks into its run at a theater on 42nd Street, God of Vengeance was shut down and the cast arrested; they were later found guilty of “presenting an indecent, obscene, and immoral play.” As Vogel sorts the facts in Indecent, that’s the end of that part of the story; next stop, Lodz.
But that wasn’t the end. The company, after posting bail, actually returned to the theater in time for the matinee, and the verdict was in any case overturned on appeal. (A timeline provided to critics outlines these developments.) Of course it’s more dramatic as Vogel presents it onstage, but the omission is one crack among many in the storytelling that together lead to an atmosphere of unreliability even if you don’t have a cheat sheet. Another is the narrator, Lemml, a humble everyman character invented by Vogel to hold the rangy story together. Lemml is by chance in the room when Got fun Nekome is first read in Warsaw, then, transfigured by his first taste of theater, he becomes its stage manager in Europe and New York. In 1938, he returns to Poland — an unlikely reverse migration Vogel tries but fails to motivate — and joins the doomed troupe in Lodz. It is that troupe, called the “dead troupe” in the script, that performs Indecent, apparently from beyond the grave.
I have a problem with plays, however well-intentioned, that hitch their wagon of importance to the Holocaust. Presumably Vogel connects the notion of literary indecency to that of totalitarian states, but Indecent kept setting off my “category error” alarms. The Holocaust material feels Holocaust adjacent, not integral, and though God of Vengeance was apparently staged in Lodz, the performances there had nothing to do with the rest of the history of that play that Vogel dramatizes. For this Taichman must share the blame, as she shares a “created by” credit. (She first worked on this material as her directing thesis at Yale, where Vogel later taught playwriting.) Her staging, full of haunting touches and clever perspectival high jinks, fudges the distinctions among the 40-some characters played by the seven actors and thus seems to invite us to imagine relevance that doesn’t exist. (The three fine musicians shape-shift, too, but less confusingly.) In preparing the show for a theater that holds something like eight times the audience of the Vineyard’s intimate space, Taichman has also upped the cute-Jew ante well past my comfort level. Even the cellphone announcement is spoken in an oy-could-you-just-die Yiddishe Momme accent. And Vogel has done little to trim the tired jokes (are we still doing lesbian-thespian shtick?) or rethink the scene-setting shortcuts (“All the German intelligentsia can talk about right now is Dr. Freud! It’s the 20th century!”) that suggest her lack of interest in the subtleties of real behavior.
Fair enough; Vogel has never been a practitioner or exponent of naturalism. Her best plays, like the Pulitzer winner How I Learned to Drive, create a theatrical world in which ideas and imagery take precedence over characters, and conflicts usually worked out in argument are instead explored in structure. That style may simply not suit a history play; though it is nominally the subject of Indecent, we never (for instance) get much of an insight into God of Vengeance. (Its violent ending is repeated many times, often for laughs.) And I would submit that the Holocaust in particular cannot yet be treated abstractly or aesthetically.
Still, Indecent gets one thing perfectly right. The rain scene between the two girls, which we also see repeatedly, is still, after 107 years, something shocking and sacred — and character-driven. Most history is.
Indecent is at the Cort Theater.