As lights rise on a motley troupe of actors, they pat clouds of dust from their dark Old World, clothes brushing away at decades of stasis. On a set that looks like the flotsam of a traveling theater company — old furniture, battered trunks, suitcases and musical instruments — this “true story of a little Jewish play” takes form. The dusting off serves as a metaphor for Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” when she resuscitated an all-but-lost 1907 Yiddish play — the only theater piece by Yiddish literary giant Sholem Asch.
That moment on Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater grows into a full-fledged dance of slaps, stomps, taps then becomes a jumping off point for “Indecent” to shake up and wake up theater goers, akin to what Asch did more than a century earlier.
This play with music doesn’t revive the Asch work, but examines what happens as his hit productions of “God of Vengeance” travels through time, place and space. Making its Washington premiere a year after it received two Tony Awards, Arena Stage’s production runs through Dec. 30.
Under Eric Rosen’s direction, which strays little from the Broadway original, “Indecent’s” show-within-a show format peels away not merely the story of this dramatic episode in theater history, but a greater tale: the exigent history of the Jewish people.
And in this political moment, when anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiments are on the rise, there is no better time to revisit Asch’s “God of Vengeance.”
Above Jack Magaw’s cluttered backstage set, surtitles announce time and location, in Yiddish and English. A bearded stage manager introduces himself and his fellow players. Lemml, he is called, and the story of this play, he intones excitedly, “It changed my life.”
As Lemml, Ben Cherry is the glue that holds this production together.
Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” took the Yiddish theater by storm at the turn of the 20th century. A wealthy Jewish brothel owner seeks to marry his virtuous daughter off to the rabbi’s son by commissioning a handwritten Torah scroll, only to discover that she has fallen in love with one of his prostitutes.
Vogel intersperses scenes from the original play like film flashbacks, introducing a tale of love, hubris and melodrama — in Yiddish some might call it shund, or trashy melodrama — of Shakespearean dimension.
“Indecent” focuses on Asch’s piece de resistance: a controversial and intimate scene where the lovers speak poetically to one another and share a kiss in the rain. As “Indecent” recalls the play through a few brief scenes from Asch’s original, its broader subject concerns rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States, along with the censorship of this scene in the play.
Music and movement enhance this journey. Music director Alexander Sovronsky offers his own incidental compositions sandwiched between Yiddish warhorses like “Ale Brider,” a socialist anthem, and that English-Yiddish wartime hit “Bei Mir Bist du Schon.”
As “Indecent” toggles between the story of the play, the play and Asch’s equally compelling history, the performers play multiple roles. Max Wolkowitz and Emily Shackelford as the ingenues, young Asch and his well-to-do wife, Chana, are luminous.
In costume designer Linda Roethke’s mannish suits, Susan Lynskey channels Marlene Dietrich as both the diva of the troupe and the play’s controversial prostitute, Halina. Her question to her fellow actress, though, underscores the anti-Semitism of the era: she didn’t ponder how she could play a lesbian, or a prostitute, but more baldly, how would she ever play a Jew?
“Indecent” has come to the stage at the right moment, although it lags at times, due to less than stellar star quality among some in the cast. While a same-sex stage kiss, and even an off-stage lesbian romance, feels neither salacious nor shocking today, Vogel reminds us of a time — 1923 — and a place — downtown New York — when police arrested the entire cast following the English-language version
It reminds us that censorship — from within the Jewish community (including prominent rabbis) and beyond — closed down one of the most popular pieces of Jewish theater in history. The trope that Jewish leaders worried that they would look bad in front of gentiles sounds familiar in 2018.
As a reminder of how far we have come, and what we might still lose, “Indecent” makes a none too subtle case for theater as an instigator to change minds, hearts, ideas and, for Lemml, that poor stage manager from a Polish shtetl, lives.
“Indecent,” by Paula Vogel, Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater, through Dec. 30; 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington; tickets $56-$115; call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.