“The God of Vengeance” (“Der Got Fun Fekome” in Yiddish) has been provoking both the Jewish community and audiences around the world since its first staging in Germany in 1907.
Polish-born Sholem Asch’s envelope-pushing drama dared to portray an Orthodox Jew named Yankl as a conscience-stricken brothel owner. Especially controversial was a lesbian love scene involving his own daughter, Rifkele, with brothel sex worker Manke.
In 2015, Jewish playwright Paula Vogel combined a short stage history of the play with observations about Asch’s challenges as a writer and a Jew in a work called “Indecent.” Now through May 25, the Huntington Theatre Company is introducing Hub audiences to Vogel’s striking 90-minute, no-intermission drama in coproduction with the Los Angeles Center Theatre Group.
Rebecca Taichman is reprising her 2017 Tony Award-winning direction with a vivid production that resonates as powerfully as Asch’s singular insights.
“Indecent” derives its intriguing title from the 1923 court case in which the cast and producer Harry Weinberger of the Apollo Theatre Broadway were described as “guilty of presenting an immoral performance,” with a conviction later reversed on appeal. Some Orthodox papers called Asch’s play “indecent” while other outlets considered it “moral” and “artistic.”
Clearly, the first lesbian kiss on an American stage and Yankl’s simulated throw of a Torah scroll were major reasons why many Jews found the play disturbing. Understandably, Vogel pays serious attention to a complicated history.
If Asch was profoundly aware of the inner torment of Jews like Yankl, he was also increasingly disturbed by the spread of pernicious anti-Semitism. Vogel’s play and Taichman’s taut direction establish a chilling contrast between the line of performers with suitcases stretching across the Huntington Theatre stage at the start as audience members enter – the actors’ evocation of immigrants entering at Ellis Island, and their later representation as concentration camp-bound Holocaust victims. Tal Yarden’s smart projection design effectively highlights timeline elements concerning Asch, his work, and 20th century Jews.
Aside from the lyrical romance between Rifkele and Manke, the arguably most fascinating part of “Indecent” involves the effect of Asch and his play on a tailor named Lemml, played smartly by Richard Topol with wonder and growing confidence about his responsibilities as a novice stage manager guiding the audience through the decades. Joby Earle as Asch is properly frustrated with the ups and downs of his play in America. Adina Verson reprises her amazing work as vulnerable, big-hearted Rifkele and Asch’s world-weary wife Madje. Elizabeth A. Davis finds all of Manke’s frustration with brothel life and her feeling for Rifkele. Harry Groener captures Yankl’s angst and legendary actor Rudolph Schildkraut’s tenacity playing him in early runs of Asch’s play.
The strong cast (including Broadway originals Mimi Lieber and Stephen Rattanzi) exuberantly dances David Dorfman’s returning choreography to music stretching from klezmer to zydeco.
At the start of Vogel’s play, a subtitle describes it as “the true story of a little play.” Asch’s still-resonant humanity proves “God of Vengeance” anything but little. The same is true of the hauntingly heartfelt “Indecent.”
At the Huntington Mainstage, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through May 25. For tickets, call 617-266-0800 or visit huntingtontheatre.org.