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‘Indecent’ review: Gripping, extraordinary play about a play

Max Gordon Moore, left, as Sholem Asch and

Max Gordon Moore, left, as Sholem Asch and Richard Topol as Lemml in "Indecent," a play by Paula Vogel now on Broadway. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

WHAT “Indecent”

WHERE Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.

INFO $39-$129; 212-239-6200, indecentbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE An extraordinary play about theater history, great passion and oppression.

Has there ever been anything quite like “Indecent,” a play that touches — I mean deeply touches — so much rich emotion about history and the theater, anti-Semitism, homophobia, censorship, world wars, red-baiting and, oh, yes, joyful human passion?

After Paula Vogel’s extraordinary play — did I mention it has original music and dance? — burst open at the Vineyard Theatre last year, the sad and strange and wonderful piece landed on many annual best-play lists. Yet it was hard to imagine how its specialness — a play about a Yiddish play? — might hold up in a big Broadway house with broad commercial expectations.

It is a thrill to report that this 105-minute, multilingual (with subtitles as needed) adventure is a natural fit. It’s a gripping and entertaining show with laughter and tears and a real rainstorm in which two women from the marvelous 10-member cast re-enact what, in 1921, had been the first lesbian kiss on an American stage. To the consternation of cautious Jews, the plot about a Jewish brothel owner was at least as alarming.

Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “How I Learned to Drive,” and director and co-creator Rebecca Taichman, have transformed the virtually forgotten story behind an early 20th century international hit, Sholem Asch’s Yiddish-language “God of Vengeance,” into headline-ready theater.

Asch’s play made less happy news in 1923, when the vice squad showed up at the already censored Broadway premiere and arrested the cast for what was officially labeled “obscene, indecent, immoral and impure material.” Years later, the play, first heard at a reading in Warsaw in 1906, was performed in the ghetto at Lodz, Poland.

Lemml, the stage manager, introduces us to the actors in the Yiddish company that performed the play to acclaim in Berlin and St. Petersburg before becoming a minor footnote in theater history on Broadway. In addition to six actors who divide into old characters and young lovers, we meet the three onstage klezmer musicians (including composers Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva) who play the songs of ancient stirrings and American jazz while interacting with such dancing, singing actors as the earthy, sensual Katrina Lenk.

The cast changes into different costumes (created by Emily Rebholz) on designer Riccardo Hernandez’s stark yet welcoming set. Years and moments make broad leaps at the sound of a little bell and a projection that says, “a blink in time.” In her program note, Vogel writes, “I believe the purpose of theater is to wound our memory so we can remember.” “Indecent” does that, but it also enchants.

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