IS THERE SOMETHING INDECENT ABOUT "INDECENT"?

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.


In the Heart of America

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

Place: South Bend, Indiana.

Home of Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish.

We were 3.5 weeks into the LA Theatre Works national tour of “Judgment at Nuremberg”. It is a radio play about the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.

You know the one-where Nazi war criminals were tried for the crimes against humanity that resulted in the Holocaust.

Our play is specifically about the trials of the judges.

The trials that followed the first Nuremberg Trials. These trials were of the judges, doctors, business men, IG Farben whose chemicals were used in the gas chambers and so on.

It's Judges judging Judges.

It's a morality play about who is responsible and how far does that responsibility go.

Fun fact: War crimes and crimes against humanity came out of the Nuremberg Trials. It was the first time that people were convicted of carrying out the law. The first time that people were prosecuted for doing something that wasn't illegal at the time that they did it. That's how bad the crimes were. We needed to set a precedent so that it couldn't happen again.

It isn't a comedy.

3.5 weeks at universities all over the country, doing workshops and having talkbacks. Amidst an impending Presidential election. We find ourselves in the middle of America facilitating a conversation about fascism, nationalism and hate. The kind that makes us insulate ourselves from our neighbors.

Election Night.

No one was going to come and see a play about the Holocaust tonight-so we had the day off.

The first thing I noticed when we arrived at Notre Dame was it's swanky-ness. It is gorgeous, surrounded by trees of every color changing before our very eyes. We checked into the Morris Inn-clearly the place they put up donors to impress them.

changing-leaves

This is a place where dreams are made. This is a place where anything is possible.

The next thing that I noticed was the lack of color-everywhere except the trees and the staff at the college. The only students that I saw of any color at all were clearly athletes.

Did I mention I was in Indiana.

Mike Pence is the Governor of Indiana.

Rohr's-the fancy bar at the Morris Inn.

nd-morris-murph

In the middle are me and my castmates. 8 liberal actor tour-mates/friends. 8 of the best that there are to work with. The crème de la crème. 8 people going onto the front lines of truth and 8 people who have been bonded together through intention.

Across from us is a group of 40-50's something women celebrating a birthday.

At the end of the bar is a group of very large college athletes dominating the TV where the sound is on.

Sprinkled amongst us are several tables of couples that probably never look like they are having a good time.

We ordered food and drinks and waited for signs of how the night was going to progress. What the next four years would hold.

Our very smiley waitress, relatively young, particularly Mid-Western-but surprisingly, under further investigation, is a mother of 4. She looks around to see if anyone is watching her and secretly shows me a photo of her kids on her iPhone.

Smiley Waitress: This is a great job. If I stay-my kids will be able to go to college here and get financial aid.

She points to Murph, the grey-haired gentleman bartender.

Smiley Waitress: Murph has worked here for more than 40 years. They named a burger after him. It's really good.

Hillary has taken her first states. Our group cheers. We receive glowers from numerous guests. I feel obliged to remind our group that we are not in Kansas anymore. Kansas, actually would've been a problem as well-but to be conscious of the fact that we might not be in the majority.

Trump takes Tennessee and a middle aged white guy stands up at his table and obnoxiously cheers and claps and directs all of his energy at our table. He jeers at us.

Obnoxious White Guy: Yeah! That's what I'm talking about!

I am actually not sure why he would care that we didn't all vote for the same person-but he was successful at making a point. A point that felt like a threat.

I went to the bathroom and the front desk staff was peering into the bar TVs. They all jumped to attention as I walked past to look like they were working. I stopped and chatted with them-my way of letting them know I'm not the person who needs them to busy themselves.

Darlene the Front Desk Clerk: How is your night going?

Me: Good with the exception of the guy who just clapped for Trump in my face.

Darlene: Oh, yes. They get very aggressive if you don't do what they want you to.

Me: How is this for you tonight?

Darlene: Just a day in the life. This is a good job so I am getting through.

After I returned from the bathroom, the bar had emptied out quite a bit. It was that time in the night when it was looking pretty good for Hillary.

Gone was the obnoxious white guy. Gone was the group of women who I wished that I had asked how they felt about the election and being in Indiana-just to hear what they had to say.

And then about a half hour later-Trump takes another state. Hmmm.

The large athletes-couldn't tell if they were football players or basketball players or maybe both-were all white except one who was ethnically ambiguous. They cheered loudly and ordered more beer. I believe “Whoops” were involved. The ethnically ambiguous one looked like he was in conflict with himself as he tried to “Whoop” along.

One of my cast mates stands abruptly to leave.

Cast mate #1: This is how much they hate us. They had to make sure we knew just exactly how much they hate us. They are really that afraid of women that they would rather have him than her.

She refuses to watch anything further publicly and retires to her room for some kind of sanctuary.

I was feeling a little touchy. I went out for some air.

Earlier that week we were in Iowa. And Wisconsin. And Minnesota. And Arizona. But in Iowa, I was met with these stares. Not by the Quakers. Not by the Amish. Not by the students or the staff at the University. By the people who were just regular people that we'd bump into at the Culver's fast food joint (Frozen custard-check it out) or the lobby at our hotel. These people who stare-it is a look I've seen before-it is a look of disgust. Perhaps I don't look the way they think I should? Perhaps it's indigestion. It's the same kind of look that someone gets when they want to destroy something.

In the space of 3 hours going between Wisconsin and Iowa to return rental cars-it's a long story that involves a cancelled flight at Chicago O'Hare airport during the last game of the World Series when the Chicago Cubs won for the first time-

I was asked by 4 separate people in 4 different places:

“Where you from? You ain't from round here.”

One of whom was a toothless truck driver who thought I might like to see his bumper sticker that was an outline of a pin up girl holding a garden tool.

It read: Every farmer needs a good ho!

When he finished laughing and slapping his knee (really, he actually knee slapped himself) he invited me into the cab of his truck.

Toothless truck driver: Maybe you'd like me to show you other things you won't see out there in California. Maybe you'd like me to teach you a thing or two.

It was at that moment I assumed the person pumping the gas into our rentals was pumping diesel so that the car would stop in a half a mile and they could come “rescue me”.

People keep pointing out that he was just a trucker…and I keep pointing out that I am just a woman and it spooked me. I felt fear. The kind I haven't for a while. The kind that is intentional. The kind you can see in their eyes.   That they want to teach you a lesson. The kind that should be unacceptable in a modern society.
When I returned to the bar this time-

Trump had just been given Florida.

One of our cast mates hangs up his phone.

Cast Mate #2: My kids are in tears. They don't understand what is happening. I told them it was going to be fine and not to worry.

The bar was now mostly empty. Except for our group, Murph the bartender, a 21 year old blonde bartender who never smiled and a man who it turns out was speaking on the panel about the Nuremberg Trials before our show the next night. We talked about the precedent that Hitler set with his rhetoric of hate. We talked about his focus on how “others” were the problem and his meteoric rise to power. We talked about how quickly the tide can shift. We acknowledged how terrifying it is that his language is mirrored to a tee by Trump as we waited to see how Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin were going to turn out.

Dessert was definitely required.

The 21 year old blonde bartender who never smiled came over.

Me: I'll have the crème brulee with 6 spoons please. How is this night for you? How do you feel about this election?

She scoffs.

Blonde Bartender: I'm just getting through it. Is that it? The kitchen is closing.

Me: Yes, that's it.

The crème brulee didn't help.

States that had seemed to be locked up were changing from blue to red.

Another cast mate hangs up his phone.

Cast Mate #3: I don't know what to tell my son. He has a Muslim girlfriend. What am I supposed to tell my son?

It was 1 AM. I'd never been on the east coast for an election. I'm used to Los Angeles where you have a new President by 10.

The bar was closing.   It was me and 2 cast mates, the 2 bartenders and the staff of the hotel. All but the blonde bartender looked like they'd seen a disaster.

I felt like I had just watched the World Trade Center towers fall again. It felt as personal as that day did. An attack on our freedom. Our way of life.

We retreated to our rooms, in shock.

The next day-I felt like I'd been hit by a truck. And the morning news didn't bring a sudden miracle.

I walked to the bagel place on campus. It was cold, sunny and windy.

trees-theater

A very tall athlete brushed past me. I felt invisible. I felt like I had a target on my back.

On the sidewalk someone had scrawled in pastel colored chalk:

Love Trumps Hate

love trumps hate

Standing in line, I overheard 2 undergrads mumbling to each other.

Female Undergrad: I don't really get what the big deal is?

Male Undergrad: I don't know. Everybody always overreacts. I mean what can happen in 4 years?

I felt like a crazy person. I felt scared.

The show that night was the kind of show you dream about. And never want to perform at the same time. Our mutual shock over what had transpired in the last 24 hours had turned to anger. Purpose.

If we were gonna be in the good state of Indiana where Mike Pence is the Governor we are going to leave it all on the stage. We are not going to leave a stone unturned. We are going to tell the fuck out of this story and hold our heads up high.

We had developed a camaraderie that you can only find on the front lines. With the people you go to war with.

Fighting the good fight.

Fighting for right by showing the humanity of being wrong.

The show was tragic and terrifying as these words that we had been saying for the last 3.5 weeks were ringing true. These words took on a new meaning.

There is a monologue in the climax of the play.

The character Ernst Janning, the pre-eminent Judge on trial for war crimes, is confessing to his part in upholding the law. He paints the scene as to how these crimes could have happened.

“There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once the devils will be destroyed, your miseries will be destroyed…What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through…It will be discarded sooner or later.”

I and my cast mates were in tears in the wings.

It wasn't until I returned home on Thanksgiving Day that I actually felt the weight of reality. Everything has started to normalize. Everyone is getting on with their day. And after standing on stages across this country for the last 5 weeks, I feel impotent. On stage everything makes sense. I am doing something. I am contributing to the world. I am an ambassador for peace. What do I do now?

Politics are a mirror the same way art is.

It is easy to sit in Los Angeles and say “How could anyone vote for him?” I know I did.

If you want to know how someone voted for him, ask them.

And then listen to what they say in return.

If you listen to someone's fear instead of their hate-they will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about why they are the way they are.

We seem to live in a time where everyone has to agree to be respectful. It's actually the opposite. Respect for humanity is out of the sameness of us all being people. Not because we are all the same.

Fighting for the good of all includes all, even those we don't agree with. Especially those who don't agree with us, because those victories are the hardest won and lost.

Wiser people than me have said that dialogue is the only true path to peace.

There is work to do.