A little Jewish play currently running at the Cort Theatre is packed with salacious taboos: mixed dancing, prostitutes, Torah desecration, and even a lesbian kiss. When Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance made its Broadway debut in 1923, this was enough to warrant a successful conviction for obscenity. Ninety years later and eight blocks north, Paula Vogel’s Indecent follows that play from its first reading in Warsaw to its premiere in New York and beyond. Because of its subject matter, Asch (Max Gordon Moore), an uncompromising moralist, receives abuse on both sides, from the Jews who accuse him of “pouring petrol on the flames of antisemitism” to the antisemites themselves. It’s a story as old as Jewish literature and one that gets revived each time a Jewish writer values his or her art over parochial piety. No doubt a chorus of disappointed parents have been left in their wake.
Now, there’s a lot to like about Indecent. Each actor plays every role that fits their gender and age, giving Ms. Vogel the opportunity to introduce some lovely echoes and parallels. For example, Mr. Moore plays both the young Asch and the eager producer who, in the nineteen-fifties, tries to convince an aging Asch that God of Vengeance deserves a revival, consistent with the play’s sense that the passage of “a blink of time” is more circuitous than progressive.
Furthermore, Katrina Lenk offers a succession of first-rate performances, equally captivating as Freida, the sultry, supercilious German actress, as Dorothee, the self-conscious Yiddish actress, and, perhaps most importantly, as Manke, the girlish prostitute written by Asch who falls in love with her pimp’s daughter. Indecent‘s rapid-fire, almost vaudevillian structure forces Ms. Lenk to vacillate between burlesque singing and dancing to Ibsenian realism in the space of five or ten minutes; what proves so impressive is her ability to hop into each of these widely different acting styles with unassuming ease.
Still, Indecent makes, I think, and unearned connection between the history of God of Vengeance and the history of Jewish persecution. True, Asch would spend his later life obsessed with politics and pogroms, but Ms. Vogel imagines a production of the play in the Łódź Ghetto. This allows a rather affective theatrical device involving the ashes of the company, but it also feels like an emotional cheap shot; is there really only “a blink of time” between the actors standing in line at Ellis Island and then standing in line at a concentration camp? They say there’s no business like Shoah business, but there’s also no quicker way to win gasps, tears, and standing ovations from an unthinking audience. It’s a shame that a play like Indecent—a play that is often vital and brimming with life—succumbs in its final scenes to kitsch.