Long before "The L Word" and "Orange is the New Black," Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch wrote a little play called "God of Vengeance" about a Jewish brothel owner who tries to move up in society by matching his virgin daughter with a Yeshiva scholar and commissioning a Torah. When his daughter becomes involved with an older, experienced prostitute from the brothel, his plans go awry.
"God of Vengeance" was first performed in 1907 and translated into a dozen languages, playing to great success around Europe throughout World War I. In 1923, the first English translation opened on Broadway, and at the end of the show, the entire cast was arrested on grounds of obscenity.
Through April 14, JCC CenterStage presents the Tony Award-winning "Indecent," Paula Vogel's interpretation of the story behind "God of Vengeance." The play was commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre and first ran in 2015; but it only just opened on Broadway in 2017 -- making this is a much-anticipated area premiere.
Like the play it's about, "Indecent" is a challenge to produce onstage. There are several difficult intimacy levels that require true professionalism, and sensitive subject matter including anti-Semitism and homophobia. If the direction of the show isn't meticulous and caring, "Indecent" could land coldly with audience members. Fortunately, the JCC has placed experienced director Lindsay Warren Baker at the helm of this powerful show.
Baker has assembled a small but versatile cast of seven actors and three musicians, all of whom hold different roles throughout the show. Through interludes of music, text slides denoting passage of time, location and what language is being spoken, and brilliant lighting design by Toni Elderkin, the play moves from 1906 to the mid-1950s during the one hour and 50-minute run (there's no intermission, though the program states otherwise).
Many of the cast members are familiar faces to the JCC stage, but there are some newcomers -- Maya Dwyer (Rifkele/Madje) especially is a stunning presence with her nuance and ingenuity. Stefan Cohen is Lemml, the noble-yet-humble stage manager, and guides the narrative largely from his character's perspective. In the role of playwright Asch, Carl Del Buono is charming and gregarious with a subtle solemnity, and his other roles (Eugene O'Neill, notably) are just as enjoyable.
Christopher Conway, another new face to JCC audiences, is tasked with playing (very well) the unlikeable Nakhmen/Rabbi, though some of his roles have a welcome silliness to them. As Manke/Freida, Sara Penner channels an air of both experience and vulnerability in her scenes with Dwyer. In the "elder" female and male roles, Davida Bloom and Don Sheffrin provide solid support to the rest of the cast.
The trio of musicians -- Steven Marsocci (accordion), Elissa Murphy (clarinet), and Kate Ruggiero (violin) -- creates poignancy for many of the show's weightier moments that recorded music could never have done. Likewise, the addition of an intimacy director (J.C. Meyer-Crosby) rewards this production with intimate scenes between Penner and Dwyer that resonate through the audience with their palpable energy.
Eric Williamson's scenic design hinges on a dusty attic that transforms again and again into a stage, a house, a courtroom, a barn, Ellis Island, and countless other settings. Tables and couches and a rickety wooden ladder are interchangeable props, and thoughtful costume pieces designed by Shelly Stam are pulled from trunks and drawers onstage as scenes change. The flow feels very cabaret, but the magic is never lost. The dust in the air of that attic could -- and does -- tell a thousand stories.
"Indecent" is yet another laudable area premiere for CenterStage artistic director Ralph Meranto, and it's an important piece of both Yiddish and theater history. Questions of morality, religion, and politics arise, leaving audiences to discuss their own perception of decency.
CenterStage will host a free reading of "God of Vengeance," directed by Hilary Bluestein-Lyons, on Wednesday, April 10, at 7 p.m.