INDECENT by Paula Vogel (Studio 180 production, presented by David Mirvish). Runs at the CAA Theatre (651 Yonge) until November 6. $50-$99, limited $29 same-day rush available. mirvish.com. Rating: NNNNN
Indecent, Paula Vogel’s remarkable play about a seminal work of Yiddish theatre, is many things: a portrait of a lesser known artist; a love story; a timely look at homophobia, artistic freedom and censorship, including self-censorship; a tale of the Jewish diaspora and the Holocaust. But at its aching, beautiful heart it’s a play about the transformative power of theatre itself.
“This play changed my life,” says the character Lemml (Matt Baram) near the outset of the show, and by the end you might feel the same way about Vogel’s script – and this wonderful Studio 180 production – too.
Lemml, a stage manager, is one of the first characters we meet. He introduces the actors and musicians who will play several roles over the course of the show, but the full significance and setting of this scene won’t become evident until much later.
In 1906 Warsaw, we meet Sholem Asch (Jonathan Gould), a young, optimistic Polish-Jewish poet and short story writer. Encouraged by his supportive wife Madje (Jessica Greenberg), he’s penned his first play, The God Of Vengeance, which recounts, among many other things, the tender love between a female prostitute and a brothel owner’s daughter.
At a reading at an influential salon, the script’s same-sex storyline upsets some – the host even tells Asch he should burn the play – but the playwright believes in the work. Aided by Lemml, a modest tailor who participated in the salon reading, The God Of Vengeance ends up getting produced, successfully, throughout Europe.
Things are a little different when Asch, his wife and Lemml move to America, however. The play’s first Yiddish production at a theatre in the Bowery is a hit, and so is one translated into English for the Provincetown Players – where Eugene O’Neill is an early admirer. But when there’s talk about a transfer from downtown to Broadway, the producer demands cuts to certain scenes, and Asch, insecure about his facility with English and disillusioned after a traumatizing trip back to Europe, doesn’t put up a fight.
After the play’s Broadway 1923 premiere, the cast is arrested for obscenity. I won’t reveal who informed the police – or what the outcome of the subsequent trial was. Part of the satisfaction of watching this play is seeing how skilfully and economically Vogel imparts information, telling us, for instance, what other plays were running on Broadway in 1923, or showing us the firing of a Yiddish-speaking actor whose broken English isn’t good enough to perform for an uptown crowd.
When characters are talking, she’ll even provide information – projected onto the backdrop by Cameron Davis – about what language they’re speaking in. All of this helps orient us. And the way she interweaves words and images – dust, ashes, the phrase “a blink in time” – has a cumulative weight.
Joel Greenberg’s production is superb, with scenes blending nicely into each other – thanks, in part to Vogel’s swiftly-moving script, but also to Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva’s lively, atmospheric music (played by Laetitia Francoz-Lévesque, Emilyn Stam and John David Williams), which helps underscore moments and change the play’s mood.
Greenberg gets inspired work from his cast, most of whom play multiple roles. Jessica Greenberg and Tracy Michailidis are tender and passionate as lovers, both in The God Of Vengeance and offstage. Gould makes a believable and moving journey from bright-eyed young artist to shell-shocked witness of atrocities. And Dov Mikelson gets two remarkable scenes, one playing an American rabbi angrily denouncing decadent art, another as a member of a theatre troupe desperately trying to get out of Europe during the Holocaust.
It’s Second City alum and frequent improviser Baram, however, who delivers the play’s most haunting performance. His Lemml, who takes on the name Lou when he moves to America, is in a way the play’s moral conscience as he defends the play that changed his life. Baram’s performance has a depth and a guilelessness that feel honest and unselfconscious.
Vogel cleverly withholds a key scene from The God Of Vengeance – one we’ve heard about but never seen – until near the end of Indecent. And when it comes, Greenberg and the cast deliver it with the grace, joy and decency it deserves.
This is easily one of the best plays of the year.