Sholem Asch’s Yiddish-language drama “God of Vengeance,” about a Jewish patriarch who runs a brothel and whose daughter enters into a romantic relationship with a prostitute, caused quite a stir in its day. When it premiered on Broadway in 1923, the police arrested the cast on charges of obscenity.
“Indecent,” Paula Vogel’s ambitious and experimental new drama about “God of Vengeance,” depicts its genesis in 1907 Poland (where elders, shocked at its contents, urge Asch to burn the manuscript) and its performance history throughout the 20th century, from a successful tour of Europe to downtown Manhattan to an attic in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Although it shows how Asch evolves from a worked-up young man eager to expose social ills and moral decay to a sad and secluded older man, the play primarily revolves around the sensitive and socially awkward Lemml (the wonderful Richard Topol), who becomes the play’s long-time stage manager and unyielding defender.
“Indecent” may be too sprawling for its own good, with six of the seven actors playing multiple roles, quick shifts in time and place and a heavy reliance on captions for expository information. It is not unlike the new Broadway musical “Shuffle Along,” also a messy retrospective on a long-forgotten piece of theater history.
Even so, the play is quite moving and visually striking. Director Rebecca Taichman stages it in an openly theatrical manner, with the ensemble always in full view and three traveling Klezmer musicians. She also imbues it with a ghostly, tragic tone.