THE BASICS: Historical drama/lesbian love story by Paula Vogel (HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE), which ran for a time on Broadway in 2017. Kavinoky Theatre (with a co-production credit to the JRT), weekends between March 6 – March 29. Kristen Tripp Kelley directs a cast of eight, with nearly all playing multiple roles. There are also four musicians, comprising a sort of wandering klezmer band. The announced running time was 95 minutes, but INDECENT ran a full two hours on opening night. There is no intermission.
ABOUT THE PLAY: INDECENT is the story of an old and largely forgotten play, kind of. More accurately, it is playwright Paula Vogel’s particular take on a peculiar, interesting, and at one time important social drama, GOD OF VENGEANCE (1907) by Sholem Asch. We get bits and pieces of the original (sometimes emphasized by repetition), a little about the playwright and his personal psychological journey, sketches of community and family members, a look at some of the original cast members and what befell them. The times – 1906 Poland through the early 50’s in suburban Connecticut – are washed in, mainly via a handful of evocative musical numbers. Some basic points about the play’s overtly anti-semitic quality, and its potential effects upon a world heading steadily toward the Holocaust, are made, but are given maddeningly short shrift, as playwright Vogel hones in on a subplot–the love story of two young women, one the protagonist’s daughter–that forms the basis of VENGEANCE’s second act.
Before we look briefly at the present production, here’s a short summary of GOD OF VENGEANCE: The protagonist, Yankl, a Jewish brothel-owner, lives with his wife, a former prostitute/employee, and their presumptively innocent 16 year old daughter above the family’s prosperous basement shop. In an attempt to least ensure his daughter, Rivkele a better life, Yankl uses a year of the company’s profits to have beautiful new Torah scrolls made. These are shrewdly serving double duty, as bargaining chip and dowry for the marriage being planned between Rivkele and the Rabbi’s scholarly son. The problem is that the young girl has already fallen head over heels, with one of the girls from the family’s downstairs concern! As the reality becomes clear and the dream falls apart, Yankl rails at both his wife (who was supposed to be the protector) and his daughter, commanding them both into the family business, to earn back the money he lost in his ill-fated Torah venture. We see him hurling the scrolls angrily to the ground as the curtain falls.
Is it any wonder that this show, a rousing European success in the early days of the 20th Century, was harshly criticized by the Jewish community, right from its inception!
THE PLAYERS, THE PRODUCTION, etc: So how is the Kavinoky production of INDECENT? Decent. Judging from the cast list, it would appear that WNY’s premiere thespians were falling all over themselves trying to get into this. A few scattered observations: Jordan Levin, who distinguished himself not long ago in the musical “Parade”, makes another strong impression here as Lemml, the country bumpkin turned initial G-of-V stage manager, turned fierce G-of-V advocate/true believer. Adam Yellen, who plays playwright Asch in all but old age, is also predictably fine, although playwright Vogel gives him (and us) surprisingly little to work with. His cameo as Eugene O’Neill, with button-mustache, was most amusing. Debbie Pappas Sham breathed sympathetic life into a few matriarchal types, and came closest, in my estimation, to true Yiddishkeit. Arin Lee Dandes, a peppy young woman with serious talent, was not, in my view, a good choice for the ingenue, Rivkele. Ever-able Peter Palmisano, another veteran working with very little, wore a truly splendid beard throughout.
So how is the Kavinoky production of INDECENT? Decent.
The show does have a cohesive, dark and ashen look to it, and a downbeat, “Cabaret”like mini-score. The clarinetist seemed to be struggling on opening night; hopefully, this will smooth itself out.
Playwright Vogel takes a very complicated topic, and tries to do too much with it. Everyone gets shortchanged. I wish I could say I found the ground-breaking lesbian elements, that obviously immersed her, transporting, but I didn’t. Not even the famous rain scene. Hey, different strokes…
The program notes needed to say more. A lot more.
All in all, INDECENT is a very odd duck.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!