It has been 94 years since an internationally celebrated Yiddish drama called “The God of Vengeance” opened on Broadway in an English translation and was instantly shut down by the vice squad as obscene.
And it has been 19 years since Paula Vogel received her Pulitzer Prize for “How I Learned to Drive,” but she has never had one of her smart, blazingly original, moving plays on Broadway.
Which of those injustices should upset us more? How great that we don’t have to choose.
You see, when “Indecent” opens next month at the Cort Theatre, this will not only mark the Broadway debut of an important playwright who has been off New York’s radar screen for far too long. The premiere also returns the story behind “God of Vengeance” to the city of its 1923 scandal and disappearance from theater history.
Vogel’s “Indecent,” a transfer from last spring’s attention-getting Off-Broadway premiere at the Vineyard Theatre, is a play-about-a-play about “God of Vengeance,” the incendiary drama that Sholem Asch wrote in Poland in 1906. Not only did Asch dare to write about a Jew who runs a brothel in the basement while trying to keep his daughter, his wife and his Torah pure upstairs. But the daughter falls in love with one of the older prostitutes. The women even kiss.
So we have a gripping back story and we have a lost treasure of both lesbian and Yiddish culture. And there’s music — klezmer, of course — and dancing. And there are seven extraordinary actors portraying many different people — sometimes in Yiddish with English subtitles — from 1906 Warsaw to America in the ’50s, from Nazis to assimilated Americans, not to mention the characters in scenes from the play itself.
In fact, Vogel’s journey with this unusual work — and for director/co-conceiver Rebecca Taichman — might justify its own drama, “The Making of a Play-about-a-Play.”
“I was 22 and at Cornell when I read ‘The God of Vengeance,’ ” Vogel, 65, reminisces during a recent phone call before rehearsals. “I read it turning the pages without a break. At the end of the play, I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
Then 20 years ago, while a graduate student at Yale, Taichman had what Vogel marvels was “the identical experience. She read it and felt she couldn’t breathe.” When Vogel heard that Taichman was trying to stage her dissertation on the play’s obscenity trial, she says, “I thought, ‘She is so obsessed. I could do work with her.’ ”
Flash forward 16 years. “I get a call from Rebecca, pitching a play about the ‘God of Vengeance.’ She realized it couldn’t just be the text. To be interesting, it needed to be a play about the play.”
Vogel says they went over “stacks and stacks” of research, “diving into this treasure trove. I actually wrote 42 drafts.” There were preliminary productions in New Haven, at Sundance and La Jolla — all with the same company that opens April 18 on Broadway. “We created our play the way Yiddish theaters created their pieces, performing together over years,” she says, adding that two children have been born while the work was aborning. “When we say we’re a family,” she says with a smile, “we really mean it.”
They landed at the Vineyard, where “How I Learned to Drive” began. Douglas Aibel, artistic director of the theater, says Vogel “has brought such passion, fire, wit and imagination to our company and audiences. She is a life force.”
Yes, but where has this life force been? An astonishing number of accomplished young playwrights might find that question absurd. For 24 years, Vogel ran the playwriting department at Brown University, then did the same at Yale for five years — where some members of the current cast were acting students. In a TV interview in 2002, she told me “I love playwrights as much as I love playwriting.”
The beneficiaries of that divided fascination include such students as the 2009 Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage (“Ruined”), whose first Broadway play, “Sweat,” opens March 26, and Sarah Ruhl, two-time Pulitzer finalist, whose “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” opened March 20 at the Lincoln Center Theater. Steven Levenson, who wrote the book for the hit musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” was one of her undergrads. The list seems to be endless.
For years, Vogel has also run what she thinks of as a “playwriting boot camp” around the country — community workshops for, as she puts it, “people who live in neighborhoods where they never read a play.” After her adored brother Carl died of AIDS, she not only fantasized a trip to Europe together in the 1992 Obie-winning “The Baltimore Waltz,” but she addressed some of the grief by starting a prison playwriting program for women in maximum security.
But here she is, back in New York — on Broadway, in fact, though she has concerns about the dominance of the commercial theater over the nonprofits. “The free-market economy has never been a model for the arts,” she says provocatively, “If it were, all of us would have our hats off and be standing in the street catching pennies.”
She is not alone in thinking that “How I Learned to Drive,” about, for starters, consensual incest and pedophilia, did not get to Broadway because it was written by a woman. For years, that has also been the conventional wisdom of why Nottage’s acclaimed “Ruined,” about the sexual tyranny against women in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, never transferred from Off-Broadway.
More doors are opening for women playwrights, as evidenced by the introduction of these two major artists to Broadway. But she asks, without needing an answer, “Is that enough?”
Meanwhile, she and Anne Fausto-Sterling, the scientist to whom she has been married since 2004, live with their two corgis in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, where they are licensed to fish for oysters, which they eat on their deck. And for now, she is thrilled to be on Broadway and in awe of the “courageous” producers who are betting on an “ensemble piece with no big names. You’ve got to love them.”
The feeling is mutual. Daryl Roth, who also produced “How I Learned to Drive,” believes that the “wave of anti-Semitism, anti-immigration and the suppression of freedom of speech” makes this “sadly relevant. I think that the play is about a passion that people have for theater, the freedom to love who you please to love and the freedom to tell your story.”
Elizabeth McCann, “Indecent” co-producer and longtime producer of Edward Albee plays, adds, “Not long after Edward died, I saw this. I think it is something Edward would want me to do. I think he would have liked the play.”
When in high school in suburban Maryland, Vogel used to forge her mother’s name to read lesbian books in the Library of Congress. “There were all these pulp novels,” she remembers. “They all ended with the woman deciding to marry a man, committing suicide or living a lonely life. . . . The lesbian love in ‘God of Vengeance’ is the purest thing in the play.”
Oh, and make that Dr. Vogel now. “Can you believe it?,” she says with a laugh when asked about the Ph.D. she got last spring from Cornell. Her thesis was on “Indecent,” including its place in Yiddish, gay and lesbian theater. Her dissertation chair is coming to opening night.