In the Moment: ‘Indecent’ at Arena Stage

“Why must every Jew on stage be a paragon?” A key question asked without bombast by one of the fictional characters created by playwright Paula Vogel for Indecent, her daring stage play composed of intense, finely-honed, identity-rich intersections.

Ben Cherry and the cast of Indecent, now playing at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Ben Cherry and the cast of Indecent, now playing at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Full of nooks and crannies about the purpose and value of the arts, about loving another human being, and the murder of 6 million Jews and Yiddish culture in the Holocaust, the Arena Stage production of Indecent under the nurturing direction of Eric Rosen, is rich in dignity. It provides an audience with a multitude of enlightening threads to pull at, to unravel, then to contemplate. My colleague John Stoltenberg reviews the play here.

The breath of Vogel’s Indecent starts with its tight interlock with Sholem Asch’s 1907 sensational “little play” Yiddish (and German) language The God of Vengeance (Got fun nekome). Asch’s play depicts a pious Jewish brothel keeper’s attempt to strike a bargain with God to keep his daughter pure. Using money earned by the women who toiled for him working “on their backs and on their knees” he bought the sacred Torah, in hopes that having the sacred scrolls in his daughter’s room would help keep her pure. (The word “vengeance” in Asch’s title had me recall that word “vengeance” spoken by God in Deuteronomy 32:35. A word that I have taken in my life to have a full range of meanings including justice or vindication, not just revenge).

Vogel takes Asch’s 1907 blockbuster hit of an original play and moves it through time and location and language, shifting to America. How will a play about pain, suffering and love at a personal level and within a larger community that the “Cossacks could not shut down,” as one character says, come under attack on Broadway and be shut down in the 1920s? How could actors risk their careers and jail time for a play considered “indecent” not just by the courts but by a stiff-necked Reform Rabbi who outed the production to the authorities, fearing a play with a loving lesbian kiss by two Jewish women would show Jews in a bad light?

Was it just censorship of what was considered a taboo moment; a tender stage kiss of two women in love as The God of Vengeance depicted? A kiss based upon the tender love written on a page based upon the love of youthful playwright Asch and his wife?

Indecent, in its own way, brings an invisible to view. It is as if in the original stories that became Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye had a fourth daughter who wanted her freedom to find and be herself. It is as if Tevye introduced one more person in the small Anatevka shtetl community, a seemingly pious, very angry brothel owner.

Indecent raises issues of tremendous heat with lines such as these from various characters:

“I know how to play a prostitute, but how do I play a Jew?”

“I want to act in this play to shock my parents.”

“What will the Goyim think of this and us?”

In Indecent, the pious father asks one particular question that is key about love and affection to his daughter: “are you still a virgin?” That brought a stammering response of “I don’t know,” leaving the Arena Stage in a total hush.

Susan Lynskey (The Middle: Halina/Ensemble) and Emily Shackelford (The Ingenue: Chana/Ensemble), with Ben Cherry (Lemml) in background, in Indecent, running through December 3,0, 2018 at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The hush became longer as the following dramatic action, performed in the melodramatic manner of early 20th-century plays, is contemplated. The action is akin to the visuals of Moses smashing the first edition of the Ten Commandments as he descended from Mt Sinai. (For non-Jews as an aside: destruction of the Torah is unthinkable. It is a major assault upon God whose words are written and read from the Torah. A Torah scroll even with one error is to be buried in a special ritual).

The Arena Stage production of Indecent is a play for any audience, not just a Jewish one. Knowledge of the Torah or Yiddish are not necessary. What is needed is an open, inquisitive mind, not a rigid one. Change the faith of the characters, or race, or language of origin, or who one loves, I am willing to suggest the story will resonate and is likely out there, just not discovered yet.

Paula Vogel’s Indecent is fearless as was Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance. Arena Stage’s passionate, articulate production provides a safe space to contemplate larger issues and values as only the arts can do. No tweet, no Facebook post can do that. Well, at least I don’t think so. For those wanting more than a meme to incite discussion take in Indecent.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Indecent plays through December 30, 2018, in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the theater box office, by phone at 202-488-3300, or go online.