I am not often asked whether or not I speak Yiddish when picking up theater tickets. But then again, after 14 years of reviewing shows, the New Yiddish Rep’s lean but effective production of “God of Vengeance” marks the first play I have ever seen performed in Yiddish with English supertitles.
This controversial 1907 melodrama by Sholem Asch is currently being produced at a small space within the experimental theater complex LaMaMa in the East Village.
Although the heyday of Yiddish theater on Second Avenue in the early 20th century is long gone, plays are still performed in Yiddish in New York by the Folksbiene (National Yiddish Theatre) and New Yiddish Rep. Recent productions include a long-lost Yiddish operetta and a Yiddish translation of “Death of a Salesman.”
“God of Vengeance” explores a Jewish patriarch who has grown rich running a brothel but is nevertheless intent on keeping his daughter pure and marrying her to a scholar. His plans are thwarted when the daughter sneaks downstairs to the brothel and enters into a romantic relationship with a prostitute. A scene where the daughter and the prostitute kiss was scandalous for its time.
Interest in “God of Vengeance” has spiked following the recent Off-Broadway premiere of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” which depicts the play’s performance history, including its genesis in Poland and its Broadway debut in 1923, when the police arrested the cast on charges of obscenity. “Indecent” is set to transfer to Broadway in April.
While the tone of “God of Vengeance” is over the top by today’s standards, it is fascinating from a historical and cultural perspective. While the kiss scene may no longer be shocking, much of the play is still provocative.
In spite of an uneven ensemble and limited production values, the New Yiddish Rep’s production (which runs 95 minutes without intermission) makes for heated and compelling theater.