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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

"What is it about your writing that makes me want to hold my breath?" —Mathilde Shapiro to her future husband Sholem Asch
Steven Rattazzi (Photo credit Carol Rosegg)
To label Sholem Asch's play God of Vengeance a "game-changer" is a little bit like saying Donald Trump is no shrinking violet. The incendiary play, which Asch did not burn (even though he was advised to) played successfully throughout Europe, scandalized vast segments of the Jewish community and ended up getting the Broadway company brought up on charges of obscenity. Since the play in question includes dashing a Torah to the ground and having two women kiss, this is not surprising.

Chronicling the birth, journey and surrounding infamy of God of Vengeance, writer Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman have crafted a hymn to the powers/dangers of creativity and dissent. And a highly entertaining one at that. Blending period specific music and vaudeville and performed "poor man's theater-style" on a nearly empty stage at the La Jolla Playhouse, this re-mount of the Yale Repertory Theatre production celebrates the institution of live theater and the people who are willing to give their life to it. Curtainup review of the world premiere )

Somewhat ironically, as posited by Indecent, Sholem Asch was not one of those people. At the turn of the century, the Polish-born writer/philosopher basically dropped God of Vengeance (his first play) into the zeitgeist of socio-political thought, followed the play's progress from afar, and then holed himself up in seclusion once things started to boil over.

Early in the play, Max Gordon Moore's Asch burns with the fires of idealism as the early draft of his play makes the rounds within I.L. Peretz's literary salon. On the page it was already incendiary. Yankl, a Jewish brothel owner looks to marry his virginal daughter Rifkele off to a Rabbinical scholar only to have her fall in love with Manke, one of the working girls. The downfall of Yankl's family galvanizes the loss of his faith, and he renounces both his daughter and his Torah. Peretz's advice to Asch at the salon where a few people refuse to even read parts aloud? "Burn it!" Once God of Vengeance starts getting staged the playwright largely drops out of the tale. Vogel and Taichman turn their attention instead to the performers: the company leader (Tom Nelis) who takes the part of Yankl, the actresses cast as Rifkele (Adina Verson) and Manke (Katrina Lenk) who become lovers offstage as well as in character, and the producer (Steven Rattazzi) who signs off on edits to the play in order to get it to Broadway. Representing the play's conscience is the stage manager Lemml (Richard Topol), a man with little education who champions the play when its author disappears.

With the aid of a trio of musicians (Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva and Travis W. Hendrix) who participate in the action, Indecency comes across as a pastiche of styles – part vaudeville, part drama, part documentary. Vogel peppers the mix with bits of Yiddish and certain key scenes from God of Vengeanceare replayed and reexamined for dramatic emphasis. The notorious "rain scene" between Rifkele and Manke closes the play. Given the love and tenderness with which Verson and Lenk infuse it, the scene carries a very different kind of charge for a contemporary audience than what must have so enraged the censors in 1923.

Taichman's spare and economical staging here is a far cry from the visual splendor she often brings to the works of Shakespeare. The director partners ably with Vogel, a daring playwright who seems to be exploring a different genre of storytelling here as well. Indecent feels less like an examination of a miscarriage of artistic justice than a heartfelt ode to lives changed by the stage. Censors or no censors, that's an evergreen subject.

Indecent by Paula Vogel
Created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Cast: MacGregor J. Arney, Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva, Travis W. Hendrix, Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Emily Shain, Richard Topol, Adina Verson
Choreographer: David Dorfman
Composers: Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva
Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez Costume Design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound Designer: Matt Hubbs
Projection Designer: Tal Yarden
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Yiddish Consultant: Joel Berkowitz
Production Dramturg: Amy Boratko
Stage Manager: Amanda Spooner
Assistant Stage Manager: Jess Slocum
Plays through December 10, 2015 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla. (858) 550-1010,
Running time: One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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Indecent - Paul Vogel and Rebecca Taichman's take on God of Vengeance in La Jolla . . Read More