Story: Young Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch longs for his play, Got fun Nekome (God of Vengeance), to be read by his mentor, acclaimed Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz. The drama focuses on the daughter of a Jewish brothel owner who falls in love with a prostitute and incurs her father’s wrath.
After Peretz and a number of other Jewish intellectuals read Asch’s script – which includes a lesbian love scene and a character throwing the Torah to the floor in anger – Peretz advises Asch to burn his manuscript.
Instead, Asch travels to Berlin, where Jewish actor Rudolf Schildkraut and director Max Reinhardt stage a production in 1907. The huge hit prompts Asch to take it to other European cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Later in 1907, a Yiddish production of Got fun Nekome achieves success in New York City, although several Yiddish newspapers condemn it as “immoral” and “indecent,” while the radical Forverts publication champions it.
When the English version of God of Vengeance finally hits Broadway in 1923, the entire cast and its producer are charged and convicted for obscenity (with the convictions later dropped on appeal).
On their release, the cast takes the production back to Europe. Asch, who had moved to America in 1914, returns to Connecticut seriously depressed by the vicious anti-Semitism he saw in Eastern European pogroms while visiting in an official capacity.
Asch buries himself in his work as a novelist, turning away from playwriting after the devastating aftermath of God of Vengeance, which people considered immoral. His former comrades in the play’s troupe continue to perform it even as the threat of Nazi Germany grows, culminating in World War II and the genocide of 6 million European Jews.
Highlights: Max & Louie Productions’ St. Louis premiere of Paula Vogel’s taut, searing and beautifully written play is being brilliantly staged and performed at The Grandel.
Other Info: Vogel’s script is called “the true story of the little Jewish play” in a heading above the seated players at the beginning of the work; it’s also the latest excellent locally performed drama based on little-known historic people and events. (It follows Silent Sky, about astronomy pioneer Henrietta Swan Levitt, and Photograph 51, about largely forgotten scientist Rosalind Franklin.)
An excellent timeline in Max & Louie’s program notes that Vogel was contacted by Rebecca Taichman in 2010 to possibly collaborate on a play about God of Vengeance. Taichman then conceived and directed the original Broadway production of Indecent in 2017, winning a Tony Award for Best Director.
Indecent resembles a seven-course meal loaded with abundant, albeit healthy, calories: rich and thick in meaning with layers of philosophical and intellectual content. It surely would benefit from multiple viewings. The script is crisp and direct; the staging, expertly devised; and the performances, of the highest caliber.
Director Joanne Gordon shrewdly uses every theatrical facet available to her in Max & Louie’s riveting, mesmerizing presentation, which runs nearly two hours in one smooth (and surprisingly brisk) act. Dunsi Dai’s set, a wonder of its own, blends with Kevin Bowman’s astute and telling projection designs to evoke the Europe and America of the early 20th century.
It’s underscored by Patrick Huber’s hauntingly poignant lighting, Stellie Siteman’s carefully selected props and Philip Evans’ wistful sound design, chilling in its own right. Teresa Doggett’s costumes and wigs embody both the performers in the original God of Vengeance productions and the “offstage” characters.
This is truly an ensemble effort in the best sense. No one player dominates the dialogue, although Paul Cereghino’s heartfelt turn as the troubled Asch comes closest, potentially matched only by John Flack’s robust performances as Peretz, Schildkraut and the elder Asch in the 1950s.
Zoe Farmingdale is effective both as Asch’s wife and as the brothel owner’s young daughter. Katie Karel excels both as the prostitute and as a German supremacist in Schildkraut’s troupe.
T.J. Lancaster is magnificent as the stage manager, who informs the audience at the start, “This is a story about the play that changed my life.” Yiddish dialect coach Menachem Szuz lends his expertise to the presentation, too.
Vogel’s script masterfully incorporates music and dance, beautifully realized here under Ron McGowan’s musical direction and Ellen Isom’s simple yet direct choreography. Gordon integrates the performances of musicians Nelly Friedman on violin, Morris Godowsky on accordion and Mayer Balsam on clarinet and mandolin seamlessly throughout the show.
Indecent provides a penetrating, remarkable look at theatrical history and the survival of art even in the most savage of times. Max & Louie Productions’ rendition is both an intellectual and emotional achievement of the highest rank.
Group: Max & Louie Productions
Venue: The Grandel, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: Through June 30
Tickets: $40 to $60; booth seating with food and beverage service available for four to six people, priced from $200 to $300; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5