The role of Otto in Paula Vogel’s Indecent—the Tony Award-winning play at Arena Stage—is an actor’s dream.
The play, about a Yiddish melodrama that scandalized Broadway nearly a century ago, opened on Broadway last year and can be seen in Washington for most of this month.
For Victor Raider-Wexler—a longtime television actor (think Seinfeld or NYPD Blue) who started out in live theater and is now back on stage—it’s well worth the trip to D.C., even if it’s his first in 53 years.
Yes, 53 years. The last time this actor appeared in Washington was in 1965, when he performed in Merry Wives of Windsor at the Sylvan Theater on Constitution Avenue.
“At the time, I was just starting out,” he reminisced one evening over the phone, following a full day’s rehearsal. “Zelda Fichandler, Arena’s founder and longtime artistic director, was a pillar of the regional stage, and I was keenly aware of the theater and the people involved.”
Although he dreamed of someday performing at Arena, it seemed unlikely. That changed when Indecent, a play about a play called God of Vengeance, was slated for Arena this year.
A bit of history here: God of Vengeance started out in 1907 as a Yiddish drama, so full of tsouris—a word meaning heartache or woe—that audiences wept whenever it was performed.
There was also plenty of scandal. The play included many things that nice people didn’t talk about, such as same-sex love, prostitution and the desecration of sacred books. Yet none of these things caused an uproar while the play was in Yiddish.
It was not until 1923, when the play was translated into English and produced on Broadway, that all hell broke loose. Jewish leaders were outraged at this exposure, and the play was promptly shut down.
(Click here to read John Stoltenberg’s highly perceptive review.)
In Indecent, Raider-Wexler plays Otto, one of the founding members of a Yiddish actors’ troupe, which produces God of Vengeance at different moments in history.
As Otto, Raider-Wexler plays many roles. His favorites are those of Rudolf Schildkraut, the world-famous actor, and Sholem Asch, the best-selling Yiddish novelist and playwright.
Schildkraut himself plays a multitude of roles, though the most important—in this play at least—is that of Yekel, the brothel-keeper, who is also the father of a beautiful unmarried daughter.
“Yekel is the character closest to the heart of this story,” said Raider-Wexler. “He’s a middle-class pimp”—just an ordinary guy trying to make a living— “who wants his beautiful daughter to marry a Talmud scholar. Instead, the daughter falls in love with one of her father’s prostitutes.”
If the relationships sound complicated, just imagine them as a set of Russian dolls, each nestled inside the other. First comes the real actor, last seen in D.C. 53 years ago. He plays a fictitious actor named Otto, who plays a real-but-dead-actor, Rudolf Schildkraut, who in turn plays Yekel, the fictitious owner of a whorehouse (and source of all the tsouris) in God of Vengeance.
Otto also plays Sholem Asch, the celebrated writer who is lonely and lost in America. Asch, who never mastered English, was embarrassed by his accent. And he was dismayed by some of the changes in the play that were forced on him when it moved uptown.
Although Raider-Wexler has never worked in the Yiddish theater, he has performed opposite some of the great actors who “crossed over.” Molly Picon was one. (He was 27 and she was 70 when he played her husband, an incident that led to his increasing his age until he arrived in Hollywood, where, he discovered, younger was better.)
Now in his seventies, Victor was born in Toledo, Ohio. His first acting role was in the fifth grade, when he was cast as Scrooge in the class production of A Christmas Carol. “I got the role because of my deep voice,” he explained.
After college, he headed straight for New York, where he made the mistake of looking for an acting job in the New York Times. (“I should have looked at Show Business, a trade magazine for people looking for work, but I didn’t know that.”)
The closest thing he found was a want ad for a puppeteer. He learned every aspect of the trade, from pulling the strings to building the stage and rigging the lights. “It turned out to be a great introduction to professional theater,” he said.
Puppetry led to Broadway—Off and On—and that led to Hollywood, where he starred in a series of films before landing on Seinfeld. There he became a hit as “Dr. Wexler,” a truncated version of his real name. (This was after various shows in which he was either “Dr. Silver” or “Dr. Gold.”)
After 15 years in Hollywood, he moved to Kansas City, where he settled down with his two daughters, both of whom are now at college.
He thought he had retired from acting, and had switched to directing at Kansas City Repertory, when he was asked to perform in The Diary of Anne Frank.
“That was two years ago,” he said. Now, he’s rediscovered the stage. And he’s busier than ever, with two series on Netflix—The Boss Baby and Troll Hunters—plus voiceovers. Kansas City Rep, in fact, is one of the co-producers of Indecent, along with Arena and Baltimore Center Stage.
“So why did it take 53 years for you to come back to Washington?” I asked.
“I don’t like to travel,” he replied.
Hopefully, that will change. With luck, we’ll be seeing Victor Raider-Wexler back soon.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.