Free speech. Secular faith and identity. Assimilation vs. retention of culture. Artistic ownership. Sound like heavy stuff? Well, just wait, the Holocaust comes in at the end.
Indecent — directed by Eric Rosen, written by Paula Vogel, and going on now until Dec. 30 at Arena Stage — takes on a lot of weighty themes in its 105-minute, intermission-free run time. The good news is it’s up to the lifting. The better news is it’s not all grim and grey — there’s music, love, beauty and lots and lots of creative passion to lighten the load.
The play tells the story of a different play, Sholem Asch’s (Max Wolkowitz) early 20th century drama God of Vengeance, about a Jewish brothel-owner (Victor Raider-Wexler) and his virginal daughter (Emily Shackelford), who falls in love with one of the working girls downstairs (Susan Lynskey). Vogel’s story of Asch’s story jumps around countries and eventually across the Atlantic, as well as through the years from the 1910s to the ’50s. Through the eyes of longtime stage manager Lemml (Ben Cherry is the only actor confined to one role), the tale of the performers and their sometimes-shifting text is largely told in vignettes, here acclaim and thunderous applause, there censorship and arrest for obscenity.
For you see the play, particularly once it reaches America, is assailed by those who find its content, you guessed it, indecent. The prostitution, the homosexuality, the Torah-hurling … It’s attacked by Jews and gentiles alike.
Indecent‘s cast and crew do a great job with a plot that is at once rather scattered and a little hand-holding, in terms of the projected titles often spelling things out we can clearly see. All of the songs are great, the costumes and set are spot-on, and the performers have a good time playing different actors playing the same character. Shackelford, for example, plays all the actresses trying their hand at the ingenue, lending each their own takes on the character. Lynskey shows off the range, too, of those playing the lead prostitute, from a Marlene Dietrich-ish Berlin lounge singer, to a first-generation immigrant actress thrilled to finally get a lesbian character.
Indecent uses God of Vengeance as a metaphor for the Jewish people, surviving and thriving despite international persecution which, no, don’t think it deserves that. More, GoV itself explicitly rejects that comparison — it wants to show A Jewish family, not The Jewish family.
But as a play about a play, you could do a lot worse. At it’s darkest, Indecent is quite lively, and at most light-hearted, it keeps its eyes on the road ahead.