IS THERE SOMETHING INDECENT ABOUT "INDECENT"?


Stephen Fife

Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics


On Friday July 14, I went to see the play Indecent at the Cort Theatre on Broadway. The play was "created by" Rebecca Taichman and Paula Vogel, written by Paula Vogel and directed by Rebecca Taichman. The subtitle of the play, which is projected on the back wall of the stage, is "the true story of a little Jewish play." The play lasted 90 minutes and was beautifully performed by the ensemble of seven actors (all but one playing multiple roles) and three onstage musicians. The production values were all first-rate, with the music composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva and the choreography by David Dorfman proving especially outstanding. At the end, the audience rose en  masse and gave the actors a standing ovation. I too rose and clapped as loudly as anyone.

Yet there were things that bothered me about what I'd just seen, and that wouldn't go away, no matter how many times I shoved them aside.

I had met the director Rebecca Taichman before, and she has been a Facebook friend of mine for a while. I left her a Facebook private message, letting her know that I had seen the show, had enjoyed it, but there were a few things that I would like to speak with her about if possible. I told her that I was going to be in New York City for a few more days and could we meet for a brief discussion? I did not receive a response from Rebecca at that time, nor have I since. In the absence of any reply, I feel that I have no choice but to go public with my concerns.

At this point, I should mention that I adapted God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch in 1992 as a commission for The Jewish Repertory Theatre, who produced my adaptation at Playhouse 91 for six weeks, featuring husband-and-wife Lee Wallace and Marilyn Chris as the husband and wife who are raising their daughter Rivkele upstairs to be a fit wife for a rabbi's son, while downstairs they run a brothel of young girls, including one named Manke who Rivkele falls in love with. My version was subsequently produced several times, most notably in Atlanta in a joint production of The Jewish Theatre of the South and Seven Stages, directed by the great Joseph Chaikin, founder of the Open Theatre. I ended up writing a memoir of my experience with Asch's play - and especially with Joe Chaikin - entitled BEST REVENGE: How the Theater Saved My Life and Has Been Killing Me Ever Since (Cune Press, 2004).

It was during the tech week of Chaikin's production that I met Rebecca Taichman. In fact, I chronicled the meeting in my book: "A week before the show opened, we received a surprise visit from three members of a Boston-based theater group, one of whom had been in Joe's Directing class at Yale Drama School. They all looked to be in their mid-late 20s, two women named Rebecca and a man whose name now escapes me.  (For the sake of simplicity, I will call him "Rebecca" as well.) The Three Rebeccas brought with them a nervous, gossipy energy, conspiratorially divulging rumors of power-plays at large regional theaters.... On the day [they] showed up at rehearsal, Joe had the two girls run through the scene in the rain, getting mildly drenched, and then asked our visitors: "What do you think?" There were a few moments of awkward silence. Then Joe's directing student from Yale spoke up. "I really really like it ... except I really miss not hearing the sound of the rain." Joe asked her for a suggestion. "Well," she said, "why you don't you get an offstage sound effect?"

This student from Joe's class was Rebecca Taichman. The suggestion she made was one that I had been making for the previous two weeks, only to be turned down each time by Joe. The fact that she had finally gotten him to do it was something I found endearing, and I struck up a conversation with her. "Rebecca One blushed slightly - she was a thin, pale girl with frizzy light-brown hair - and she told me that she really liked my adaptation. (Joe had given her a copy.) She also confessed to not liking Donald Margulies' version."

Just an inside-baseball note that the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Donald Margulies had written his own adaptation of Asch's play a few years after mine, and I was no fan of it. He had transposed the play to the lower East Side, where it no longer made any sense as a critique of Jewish hypocrisy, as Asch had intended, but was now about assimilation - a subject that had nothing to do with Asch's original play. So Rebecca's distaste for the Margulies version further endeared her to me, and in the book I spun out a minor fantasy of our nuptials. "This daydream was rudely interrupted by her disclosure that she had written her own God of Vengeance. More specifically, it was a hybrid, interspersing her own adaptation of the Manke-Rivkele love scenes with courtroom scenes from the obscenity trial of the 1923 Broadway production. "It was a big hit at the Boston Gay and Lesbian Festival," she informed me, adding modestly, "though it still needs some work."

Keep in mind that the Chaikin production was in October 1998. Indecent had been commissioned by Yale Rep in 2013 and given its World Premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in October 2015. I believe that Rebecca first presented her People vs The God of Vengeance as her Senior thesis at Yale, which was probably a few years before I met her. So all in all it was a long journey, but one that had richly paid off for her in the best of all possible ways: A Tony Award for Best Director.

Now I'm going to say something negative here, and I've been in the theater - and in the world - long enough to know that any such comment by me will immediately be ascribed to envy on my part - I freely admit that I have no Tonys and would love one someday - or, worse, that I have some need as a man to deny a woman artist's achievement. All I can to say to both of those charges is that they aren't true and don't align with my personal history. And that it honestly pains me to say anything negative about either Rebecca Taichman or, especially, Paula Vogel, whose work I've always deeply admired.

From INDECENT. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

But to me it's incontrovertible that Rebecca Taichman took a lot from Joe Chaikin's production of God of Vengeance, both generally and with regard to specifics. In a general sense, the way that Rebecca uses dance and movement to transition from one scene to the next borrows heavily from The Open Theatre playbook, and from Joe in particular. Okay, but so what, right? We are all influenced by each other's work, and if it works for her production, then why not use it? What's a little stealing between friends? To that I say: the fiddler. The onstage klezmer fiddler was a character not in Asch's play who Joe invented to play against Asch's melodrama by adding some Chagall-like whimsy while also enabling the actors to make more fluid transitions between the upstairs and downstairs scenes. Rebecca Taichman has co-opted this fiddler, changed it from male to female and also used it very dexterously to make the transitions more fluid. Again, Rebeca was there for runthroughs, she was there for the opening, I believe, and, after the curtain went down on Indecent, I had no doubt that she had co-opted this idea from Joe Chaikin.

Which is perfectly legal, of course. Joe - who died in 2004 - did not copyright his direction, something that is rarely done. But then give the man credit. I don't recall reading any interviews in which Rebecca gives Joe the credit he deserves for the serious influence he had on her work. It certainly wasn't in her acceptance speech at the Tonys, and it should have been. Still, however much this neglect of Joe's influence may have bothered me - and it did - it pales beside the half-truths and outright falsehoods that mar the script. (And remember that Rebecca Taichman is co-creator of this.)

I know the way this is usually done is to start with the murky half-truths and end up in an apoplectic rage with the lies. But there is a lie that bothers me so much that I can't start anywhere else.

This has to do with a line that is quoted from Sholem Asch's play several times, from the scene at the end of the play, when Rivkele has been brought back to her father's house after running off with Manke. "Are you still a virgin?" he asks her. When she tells him that she doesn't know, he flies into a rage, screaming: "One thing I know about is money! It took a year of all the girls working on their backs to make the money to buy the Torah Scroll, and now you are going down there to make the money to pay me back." It's a horrifying line, very effective. The only problem is that Sholem Asch never wrote it. I know this because it was not in the literal translation from the Yiddish that I commissioned when making my adaptation, and because I consulted with Caraid O'Brien, who has translated and adapted her own version of God of Vengeance (performed in New York in 1999) and who was in the 2016 Yiddish production of the play at La Mama, and she assures me that no such line occurs in the text. Not even close. In my opinion, the playwright (Sholem Asch) would have denounced it for two reasons. First, because the brothel-keeper is the tragic hero of the play - aspiring to Godliness even as he continues to exploit young women for money - and this line does not reflect his internal pain, it makes him into a villain. And second, because it evokes the stereotype of the greedy, money-grubbing Jew, something that Sholem Asch worked very hard to avoid.

Actors portray a Berlin stage troupe in a playful moment in INDECENT

Many of the other half-truths and lies in Vogel's play have been detailed by frequent New York Times-contributor Jesse Green, in his review of Indecent for The Vulture. If you believe Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, the 1923 Broadway production was shut down on opening night and that was it. But that is not true. As Mr Green writes, "The company, after posting bail, actually returned to the theater in time for the matinee, and the verdict against them was in any case overturned on appeal." A murkier issue is whether or not the controversial love scene between the two girls was or was not in the Broadway version. According to the show's producer (who was also a lawyer), that scene was in NEITHER the Off-Broadway version at the Provincetown Players NOR in the Broadway version. But we know this can't be true because several reviewers of the Off-Broadway production complained about this scene in their reviews, calling it "obscene." So it's very possible that this scene also was in the Broadway version - wasn't that after all the main complaint against it? But, again, it's not clear, and so it's fair game for Ms. Vogel to use.

Rebecca Taichman and Paula Vogel

A much bigger problem - and for me, this one is insurmountable - is the production's attempt to link God of Vengeance with the Holocaust. There simply is no link. None. Just like there was no Lemml - the nebishy main character who Paula Vogel invented to give the play a dramatic arc. According to Indecent, the Polish cast of the 1923 production went back to Poland, where they were put into the Lodz ghetto and performed Asch's play in secret to keep spiritually bonded to each other. Where they got this from, I don't know, but it's complete pie-in-the-sky nonsense. Rudolph Schildkraut, the star of the 1923 Broadway production, died in Hollywood in 1930 of a heart attack, not in Lodz, as depicted here. Sholem Asch expressly refused to grant permission for any performances of God of Vengeance from 1933-45 because of his fear that it would be used as anti-semitic propaganda. Does that mean it wasn't performed in the Lodz ghetto? No, it's possible, just as many other plays and songs were performed, to keep the Jewish heritage alive for those poor souls who were doomed. As Jesse Green writes, "I have a problem with plays, however well-intentioned, that hitch their wagon of importance to the Holocaust." Personally, I think this use of the Holocaust for cheap theatrics and sentimental exploitation of the audience is reprehensible. I mean, it does work, and it does ground the play in an emotionally resonant place. But it's not true. And when you subtitle your play "The true story of a little Jewish play," then that's a problem. (Also, there's no way you can call God of Vengeance "a little Jewish play." It's one of the three great Jewish plays, along with The Dybbuk and The Golem.)

Is this important? Is it even worth mentioning, especially since the play touches so many people as is?

In her program note for the production, Paula Vogel remarks on how timely this play is, when "we again are witnessing an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and, yes, Anti-Semitism."

Very true. But this is also the time of "Alternative Facts and Fake News," when we have a president who denies truth and factual evidence in favor of whatever serves his self-interest. In such a climate, it is more important than ever to cling to the facts when they are relevant. This is not in any way to equate Trump World - so truly indecent - with what has been done in Indecent. I both understand and respect the importance of God of Vengeance as a statement of identity and even empowerment for the LGBTQ community. But to my mind this makes it all the more important to stick to the truth when dramatizing this story and to give artistic credit where this is due.

That's how we as artists can honor the legacy of those we've been nourished by. Just as Sholem Asch, complicated and difficult man that he was, has nourished us all through his play from 111 years ago.