There’s something rare about the production of Paula Vogel’s haunting play-about-a-play Indecent, available for your perusal—and by all means, I encourage you to peruse it—at Arena Stage through the last weeks of this year: the music. This staging, which after its Arena stand will travel to Kansas City Repertory and then back east to Baltimore Center Stage before it’s memory-holed forever, omits the Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva-composed Klezmer music heard in Indecent’s 2015 premiere at Yale Rep and its four-month Broadway engagement last year. Instead, director Eric Rosen uses a diegetic Klezmer score developed by Alexander Sovronsky, whom Rosen engaged before Vogel had a chance to ensure that all subsequent productions use the music she commissioned. (Sovronsky also plays fiddle in the trio, with Maryn Shaw and John Milosich, that performs the score and remains on stage and visible throughout the play.)
Without having seen the Broadway production, I can only report that this music works, establishing the mise en scène and the somber tone as the action leaps back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean over a period of almost 50 years. The geographic and temporal sprawl, and similarly supersized thematic concerns—what obligation does an artist have to the art he makes and to the people who nourish and sustain it, among other questions—make Indecent an epic. And yet it feels intimate, even quiet. That’s a good trick.
Some of that is lighting design. Josh Epstein shrouds even daytime scenes—actually, I’m not sure there are any anytime scenes—in heavy shadow, as if to suggest that the characters’ epiphanies are internal, and known to them alone. The show is essentially a dramaturgical history of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s 1907 play God of Vengeance, which was shocking in its time both for depicting a love affair between two women and for its suggestion—unpopular among some of the playwright’s fellow Jews—that some selected members of God’s Chosen People could sin just as grievously as the goyim. (This aspect was drowned in a wave of more general anti-Semitism once God of Vengeance got to Broadway.) Asch’s plot concerns the operator of a brothel who wants to improve his station by marrying off his daughter to a pious suitor. The girl falls for one of the prostitutes in his employ instead.
Vogel cleverly charts the development of God of Vengeance through several increasingly sophisticated iterations of its “rain scene,” which culminates in what became Broadway’s first lesbian kiss. The first one, with men shakily reading the women’s roles in a Warsaw salon, is played for comedy. That the scene becomes more resonant with each reprise is but one example of the dexterity of Emily Shackelford and Susan Lynskey, who perform it as several different characters in different time periods. Every member of the cast plays multiple roles, sometimes in multiple languages; unobtrusive surtitles translate the Yiddish and German passages. Other notably excellent members of the strong company include Ben Cherry, who plays the stage manager of the troupe that first performs God of Vengeance, and who becomes a tireless advocate for the play even after its author shows little interest in protecting it. Max Wolkowitz is convincing, too, as both the wide-eyed and then grief-haunted Asch, and later on, as a young director hoping to revive the playwright’s masterpiece.
After its premiere in Warsaw, God of Vengeance received frequent productions in Europe. When it opened on Broadway in 1923, local authorities indicted the cast and producer on obscenity charges, never mind that the English version was a heavily censored reduction of Asch’s landmark work. Though he’d emigrated to the United States by that time, Asch claimed he didn’t understand English well enough to grok how the backers had defiled his play. In any case, he had already left the theater to write novels. Many of the artists he’d worked with back in Europe would not escape the Third Reich, though they sent him letters begging for help with their asylum applications. That Indecent is so eloquent a reminder that pleas and prayers often go unanswered is just one more paradox in a little story that feels huge.
To Dec. 30 at 1101 6th St. SW. $41–$95. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org.