Huntington's "Indecent": A Blink in Time

The Cast of "Indecent"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

As one enters the Huntington Theatre, one is confronted by an already-seated cast of ten on stage, still, mute and harshly lit, awaiting us and awaiting their fate which they are about to reveal to us in a play-within-a-play. Behind them is the first of many projections that will aid us in understanding their history:”Indecent, the true story of a little Jewish play”. Soon, very quietly, they take their positions, seven actors and three musicians, ready to share the real evolution of the 1907 play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch in its trajectory from page to multiple world stages and the reception (and rejection) it received. Its notoriety was based on the fact that two of the actors portray lesbian lovers (one a brothel owner's daughter, the other a prostitute), as well as some less than savory Jewish characters. Asch was advised to burn it but refused, producing it across the world from St. Petersburg to Constantinople to New York, leading to a 1923 obscenity trial. Then, as now, the world was beset with fear, xenophobia, homophobia and anti-Semitism.

Adina Verson & Elizabeth A. Davis in "Indecent"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This play (Indecent, that is), by local Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play, and its Broadway Director Rebecca Taichman, (repeating her work here) won the Tony for Direction of a Play in 2017, 94 years after God of Vengeance first saw the light of day. This current mounting is a co-production by Huntington Theatre Company and L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, in its Boston premiere. Some of the actors and musicians from the Broadway production (aired a few seasons back on PBS) echo their roles here. The result is a production in which performers truly inhabit their roles in such a compelling and natural manner that it's impossible not to be deeply moved by them. The concept of love, chronicled in the requited passion of the two lesbians, and extending to the basic love of performing, conquers everything and is all-pervasive.

Joby Earle & Adina Verson in "Indecent"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Little should be revealed concerning this relatively short (just under two hours) work; the less one knows, the more one will be justifiably captivated by the truth and its reenactment. In such a small, tightly knit ensemble, it's also crucially dependent on the entire cast (and that would include its “traveling” musicians) to share the ferocity of their love vs. the forces of hate. Each has an opportunity in multiple roles to memorialize this little-known piece of history, especially the Stage Manager Lemml (Richard Topol), the brothel owner's daughter Rifkele (Adina Verson), and the prostitute Manke (Elizabeth A. Davis); equally memorable were the roles performed by Joby Earle, Harry Groener, Mimi Lieber, and Steven Rattazzi, as well as the musicians Lisa Gutkin (also Music Supervisor and Co-Composer with Aaron Halva), Matt Darriau and Patrick Farrell. The other talent on view is the excellent Choreography by David Dorfman, the spare Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez, the fine Costume Design by Emily Rebholz, Sound Design by Matt Hubbs and Projection Design by Tal Yarden. Special mention should be made of the Tony-winning Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind.

The Cast of "Indecent"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Huntington is renowned for its intelligent choices, and this ranks among their best, notably in the choosing of Vogel and Taichman to recreate the tale they have brought to life. Several of the projections used to clarify the progress of the story as well as to comment on the severity of their plight as opposed to the joyfulness of their love of theater, resonate. One repeated phrase is “a blink in time”, which the Stage Manager reiterates as he first blinks, then shuts his eyes long enough to exclaim “please don't let this be the ending!”. By the end of this play, we are all metaphorically (and for some, literally) washed clean.

Not to attend this play, here through May 25th, would be, well, downright indecent.

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