Sunday, September 30, 2018

An 'Indecent' Review: At Victory Gardens, Paula Vogel's Latest Demonstrates, Chronicles Dramatic Chutzpah -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

by Paula Vogel
directed by Gary Griffin
Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago 
Thru November 4

Now in a new Victory Gardens production barely a year after its Tony-nominated run ended on Broadway, Indecent is a fine play by a fine writer, Paula Vogel, whose acclaimed oeuvre I've somehow managed to miss until now. (She won a Pulitzer for 1997's How I Learned to Drive.)

Conceived and originally directed by Rebecca Taichman, the 100-minute one-act drama with music chronicles a play called God of Vengeance--originally written in Yiddish by Polish Jew Sholem Asch--that saw its 1923 Broadway cast arrested due to a lesbian love scene.

With a fine, agile cast rotating through various roles to document the development of God of Vengeance going back to Asch's first draft in 1906, Indecent--directed here by the terrific Gary Griffin--nicely weaves in several Yiddish songs played by onstage musicians (including a pre-show quartet).

While touching on weighty matters including artistic freedom, homophobia, anti-Semitism, censorship and the Holocaust, Vogel deftly moderates the pathos with the inclusion of music, humor, love and plentiful, oft playful, references to the Yiddish language prominent among Jews in Poland, Germany and elsewhere during the period depicted.

Having never heard of Asch or God of Vengeance, and intrigued by explorations of homosexuality long before it became widely accepted--to whatever degree it has--I appreciated the cultural history lesson of Indecent, and the acting is assuredly first-rate.

God of Vengeance is about a Jewish brothel owner (played here within Indecent by the always terrific David Darlow, who is simultaneously depicting an actor named Rudolph Schildkraut), whose chaste daughter becomes involved with a prostitute (Kiah Stern and Catherine LeFrere are respectively excellent, also in handling multiple roles beyond the play-within-the-play).

Rather than focusing as acutely as I would have imagined on the 1923 Broadway run that resulted in the show's closure when the cast and producer were arrested--actually 6 weeks into the run, which Indecent doesn't mention--Vogel thoroughly delineates the life-cycle of God of Vengeance dating back to its genesis years earlier. 

This is certainly of some interest, as we learn how the newly-married Asch (Noah LaPook) came to write the play, showed it to members of the Polish-Jewish intelligentsia, gained the enduring support of a man named Lemml (Benjamin Magnuson) and had it produced multiple times in various places before the Broadway production.

But perhaps because of such diffusion in reaching the crisis point, I largely observed and appreciated Indecent, but too rarely--per what I consider an arbiter of optimal artistic brilliance--felt it.

I also would have valued learning more about societal--and Jewish and theatrical--mores about homosexuality in the early 20th century, rather than having the outrage over God of Vengeance ascribed mainly to the uptight well-heeled families that significantly comprised Broadway patronage at the time.

Indecent is certainly anything but, and Victory Gardens' production is terrific. A standing ovation was deservedly bestowed on opening night, and I wouldn't be surprised or chagrined if some critics and patrons like this play far more than I did.

The difference between estimable, excellent and truly outstanding is inexact, intangible and, as I alluded above, often more about emotional embrace than cerebral assessment.

I'm happy for my first exposure to Vogel's work, can readily appreciate considerable skillfulness in the subject, structure and music of Indecent--music director Matt Deitchman clearly deserves kudos--and am glad to now know of Sholem Asch and God of Vengeance.

But although Indecent definitely isn't schlock, and depicts considerable chutzpah, I can't quite kvell.

And while I may well be a schlub who likes to kibitz without knowing bubkes, that's my shpiel. 

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