Indecent by Paula Vogel

West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park

By: - Feb 06, 2023

Indecent, the fascinating Paula Vogel play is getting a terrific production at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park through Sunday, Feb.26.

The play interweaves three elements – the life and works of the Yiddish author Sholem Asch, the history of productions of his play The God of Vengeance, and the stories of the people involved in a Broadway production of the show in the 1920s.

It may sound confusing, but it isn’t.

The play’s structure makes it easy to follow, and director Kelly O’Donnell lets us easily know what is going on and where we are.

Asch’s play – which had successful productions throughout Europe and in New York’s lower East side – was controversial from the beginning. He wrote during a time (the late 1890s-1900s) when antisemitism and pogroms were still the norms in eastern Europe. For that matter, antisemitism was prevalent throughout the world. When Asch first reads his play to fellow playwrights in Poland, he is chastised for presenting Jews in an unfavorable light. They fear his characters will reinforce or encourage more hatred.

Literature, they believe, should only present Jews in the best possible way to help reduce antisemitism. To do otherwise would be to reinforce the negative stereotypes.

We can see similar discussions about other groups facing discrimination in society. Should literature written by members of the groups feature only heroic characters and uplifting, positive stories?

Asch’s main character owns a brothel. The central conflict in his play is the father’s response to his young daughter falling in love with one of the prostitutes, a lesbian romance. As a result of that, he rejects God, throwing down the Torah.

Yet despite what even today can be controversial, the play was successful.

After a long run on the lower east side, a producer wants to take it to Broadway with an English translation. The show is edited, which removes much of the meaning and focuses only on the more salacious elements. A prominent rabbi files a complaint; the cast is arrested (and found guilty) of indecency.

In this production, an excellent cast plays multiple roles – as both the actors and the characters in the play. With the exception of Lemml, the stage manager (well played by Dan Zimberg), they play people from Asch’s life, actors and characters in his play.

Interwoven into the piece is music played by three musicians/characters. The result is a flowing of the play itself and the performance. It almost seems as if has a strong dance element. In fact, the program credits Katie Stevenson-Nollet as the choreographer.

The set must be flexible which Johann Fitzpatrick provides and costumes by Izzy Fields are simple but effective. Both lighting designer Joe Beumer and sound designer Jeffrey Salerno do excellent work.

O’Donnell and her actors work as an ensemble. Helen Lasser does a fine job as Rifkele, the daughter, as do Dan Krackhardt who plays among others Eugene O’Neill (great) and Morris Carnovsky. Kirsten Peacock has the important role of Manke, the prostitute. She and Zimberg are the centerpiece of the work.

Indecent recall the heyday of Yiddish theater in the US, as well as the need for others to control what audiences can see. It raises issues that exist today. Too often, we hear for schools , universities and both community and professional theaters being threatened when they present thought-provoking and challenging works.

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