It started with a picture. A play about a play. A 12-member cast, whose ashes could not be swept away.
In 1906, Asch, a Polish-born American Jewish novelist and dramatist wrote this controversial play in the Yiddish language. The play was staged for years in Yiddish and German throughout Europe. In Poland, Asch tapped into that country’s vibrant literary scene, but nearly 20 years later in America, his play shocked Broadway and landed both the show’s producer and its leading man in jail.
Asch’s epic tale focuses on Yekel, a prosperous Jewish brothel keeper who bribes a rabbi so that the rabbi’s son will marry his daughter. Above everything else, Jekel and his wife aspire to give their daughter Rivkele a better life, even though they operate a brothel from their basement. However, Jekel’s dream of redemption for himself and holy marriage for his young daughter is threaten when Rivkele falls in love with Manke, one of his prostitutes.
In her play, Vogel explores the lives of these people and what it articulated about Jewish culture in America in the 1920s. Featuring a lesbian relationship, the play was considered a ground-breaking work of Jewish culture by some, while others scorned it as an obscene betrayal of that same culture. It wasn’t the brothel scenes that shocked the audience or disturbed critics, as there were plenty of similar sordid plots playing in theaters in New York City during that time. It was the lesbian romance between a brothel owner’s young girl and one of his working girls that scandalized uptown audiences.
“Indecent” opened April 18, 2017, at Broadway’s Cort Theater after an Off Broadway run at the Vineyard Theater. And through it all, Vogel has stayed true to Asch’s drama. In fact, the scripts the actors use in “Indecent” are photocopies of Asch’s original manuscript. But it is her backstage drama about the intertwined lives of an acting company and the roles they played in this scandalous production that transforms Asch’s epic production into a modern spectacle.
And while we don’t actually see Asch’s play performed in its entirety—only bits and pieces— we’re left with a vivid sense of the drama. Thanks to Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Director, J. Barry Lewis’s direction and Paul Black’s artistry, whose eerie lighting design has this phantom troupe suspended somewhere beyond time and space, and features projections that orient us as to the time, place and language spoken in the scenes that follow—a troupe of Yiddish actors rise from the ashes and tautly come to life to play their parts in this drama.
It comes to a head when a production of “The God of Vengeance” in English opens at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in late 1922. Even though this audience welcomes the play, the show’s producer, Harry Weinberger, worries that it might be too provocative for the less bohemian people of Uptown. So, a pivotal love scene between the two women is deleted from the script, much to the distress of the cast members.
In February 1923, the play moves uptown to the Apollo Theatre, where it draws the attention of the local police, even after that scene has been removed. During a performance on March 6, police officers appear backstage and tell Weinberger that he and the cast are being arrested on obscenity charges.
They plead not guilty to the crime of “unlawfully advertising, giving, presenting, and participating in an obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama or play.” But a jury convicts Weinberger and the cast. He is fined $200 as well as the play’s director and star, Rudolph Schildkraut. The other cast members receive suspended sentences, but Weinberger appeals the conviction. Following the indictment, Weinberger begins organizing support. He writes to numerous well-known political and academic personalities asking them to write testimonials defending the play’s morality. He even seeks the alliance of other playwrights, such as Eugene O’Neill.
In the end, that notorious rain scene that never made it to Broadway in 1923, makes it to Vogel’s production, multiple times, actually. It is in no way scandalizing, but it leaves its audience with something to talk about—what great plays should do.
Review: Palm Beach Dramaworks’ “Indecent”