'Indecent' review - a radiant ensemble finds beauty in the quiet moments
Talk about a delayed thrill: Paula Vogel’s lauded play Indecent was primed for its British debut at the Menier Chocolate Factory back in March 2020, when the curtains came down across theatreland. So here it finally is, directed as in New York by Tony winner Rebecca Taichman but even more immediately powerful and moving than I remember from its Vineyard Theatre iteration. (The subsequent Broadway transfer won an additional Tony for Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, which is no less virtuosic here.)
And perhaps it’s because context counts for a lot, but it’s virtually impossible not to think of Vogel’s panoramic portrait of the Jewish experience, and a culture at once enduring and (as seen in the play) under threat, without thinking of Indecent as the play Tom Stoppard might have written with Leopoldstadt. That larger-cast show, now back on the West End, has a similarly time-hurtling, wounding quality without the narrowing of focus that proves so invaluable here.
Maybe, too, there’s something about seeing this portrait of a play, Sholem Asch’s Yiddish-language God of Vengeance, that travelled to Europe and back, generating controversy and a New York obscenity trial along the way, amidst our increasingly divisive and wary age. Whatever the reason, a work whose given refrain is “a blink in time” turns out to look very nearly timeless: the evening widens out beyond a recreation of a banner moment in Broadway history to forge all sorts of connections that ricochet well beyond Asch’s text. And for all the bustle of Taichman’s astonishingly alert production, abetted by a protean cast of seven who collectively play more than 40 roles, Indecent is never more affecting than when most still: at those moments, for instance, where we watch a queue of immigrants awaiting entry into America, only later on to bear witness to another, entirely different queue — this time of a people on their way to extinction.
Among the cleverest of playwrights, Vogel and Taichman revel in language, which at times cascades down the back wall of Riccardo Hernandez’s set, at the rear of which sit the cast expectantly as we make our entrance into a playhouse that couldn’t be better suited to this particular work. Our guide to proceedings is also the only character gifted with an actual name: Lemml, aka Lou, a stage manager leading us through the fraught and labyrinthine trajectory of “a play that changed my life”. We follow the fortunes of God of Vengeance from an intimate reading among a European enclave attuned to its more daring aspects: “It’s the 20th century,” we’re told. “We’re all attracted to both sexes.” And in time the play, and its begetter, an impassioned Joseph Timms, have made it through Ellis Island to a downtown Manhattan in thrall during the early 1920s to the work of the young Eugene O’Neill — a part also taken by the charismatic Timms. (Vogel, like O’Neill, is the deserved winner of a Pulitzer Prize, in her case for a play, How I Learned To Drive, whose 1998 London premiere, with the late Helen McCrory has stayed with me to this day.)
But even with edits, Asch’s same-sex passages and theatrical candour prove too incendiary for Broadway: police arrive at the playhouse once the show moves uptown at which point we could as well be watching a precursor of the culture wars that have spiralled ever onwards into society today. Excerpts from Asch’s heightened-seeming text feature throughout as God of Vengeance makes its way back across the Atlantic, this time to the Jewish ghetto in 1943 Poland and on to a defining rain scene in which the very world of theatre itself seems to be joining in lamentation for the abyss towards which history would lead (and did) so many theatrical practitioners, and their audience. A fleeting excerpt from Oklahoma! reminds us of the lasting contribution of Jewish writers to the American stage, by which point Peter Polycarpou has taken over as the ageing Asch and the onstage klezmer band has kept musical pace with emotional shifts that are adroitly managed throughout.
The production finds new value in the word “ensemble” in what is possibly the best acted Menier staging since Patrick Marber’s magnificent reclamation of Travesties five years ago. Every one of the cast deftly fields a dense play, with Molly Osborne and Alexandra Silber both in radiant form as the couple at often grievous odds with their surroundings. A thickly accented Lynch acts as the de facto Emcee in a part that contains a line worthy of Vogel’s near-contemporary, Tony Kushner. “The world spins on,” says Lemml with apparent matter-of-factness until such time, of course, as Indecent reminds us, that it doesn't.
Photo credit: Indecent Cast (Photo by Johan Persson)