Thursday, April 13, 2017

Broadway Diary 2: Indecent at the Cort Theatre

A week or so ago there was an article in the New York Times about Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel, two giants of contemporary American playwrighting, and both Pulitzer Prize-winners, finally making their respective Broadway debuts this spring with their latest plays: Nottage with Sweat (which has just earned her a second Pulitzer for drama), about factory workers in America's rust belt losing their jobs that has been taken up by critics as an explanation for Trump's election; and Vogel with Indecent, about a work of Yiddish theatre from the early twentieth-century that, in making its English-language transfer to Broadway in 1920, was shut down for obscenity as a result of its on-stage depiction of a love affair between two women.

I'm a fan of both playwrights and have taught their works multiple times. But having promised Richard that we'd see a couple of musicals alongside the choices for straight plays that I'd lined up, I had to decide between them. I opted for Vogel, intrigued by what I had read about the unique metatheatrical staging of the work when it played at the Vineyard Theatre off-Broadway last year, by its incorporation of live music (a three-piece klezmer band, to be precise) and a movement score into its dramaturgy, and by Vogel's collaboration with the director Rebecca Taichman (who is also currently helming Sarah Ruhl's newest play at Lincoln Centre right now). (Interesting side note: Vogel, until her recent retirement one of the top playwrighting teachers in the US, taught both Nottage and Ruhl.)

Much has already been written about how Vogel's play serves, in Trump's America, as an allegorical indictment of censorship and ideological conservatism. But, watching it yesterday during a matinee preview, what struck me most was how the play registered as a very powerful record of a potentially lost history--not just of the once vibrant Yiddish theatrical tradition, but of European Jewry more generally. For in tracing the diasporic journey of Sholem Asch's 1910 play The God of Vengeance from Warsaw to Berlin and Paris, on to first the downtown and then the uptown boards of 1920s New York, and finally to a makeshift attic stage in the Lodz Ghetto in 1943, Vogel and Taichman are also chronicling a history of anti-Semitism that, we gradually become aware over the progress of Indecent's 95 minutes, will inevitably culminate in an ending, the Holocaust, that the stage manager, Lemml (Richard Topol), is at once powerless to forestall and also, through the magic of the theatre, helps the female protagonists of the play-within-Vogel's-play transcend. This is punctuated by a simple on-stage effect (repeating something similar from the top of the show) that is heart-stopping in its power.

There is so much more I could say about this beautiful, complex production. It is certainly Vogel's most ambitious and cosmopolitan work to date, as much a love-letter to what the theatre makes it possible to (re-)imagine as it is a condemnation of those who would seek to extinguish imagination--and those who imagine otherwise--altogether. I can think of no better way to herald this important playwright's belated but so richly deserved arrival on Broadway.


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