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Indecent ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
December 1, 2018 

Paula Vogel’s Indecent is not your typical holiday entertainment.  It’s dark and foreboding.  Opening during the season of  Hanukkah, it strikes one as an unusual period to put on a tale about the travails of a group of Polish Jewish actors who meet a terrible end in Nazi Poland.  Vogel’s play arose out of her interest in the misinterpretation of Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance written in 1907.  It attempts to revisit that play and its impact and separate the two from Asch’s original intent – what he truly meant to express and how devastated he was when critics and rabbis disapproved of it.  As a period, Yiddish play, written during the heyday of Yiddish theater, Asch was devasted when his play augured the demise of that beloved form of entertainment.

(L-R) Susan Lynskey (The Middle: Halina/Ensemble) and Emily Shackelford (The Ingenue: Chana/Ensemble), with Ben Cherry (Lemml) in background. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

We meet the young Sholem and his wife in their bedroom.  She is reading his first play and encourages him to produce it.  “It’s wonderful!  It’s so sad,” she tells him.  He presents it in a private salon for playwrights at the home of a producer who agrees to stage it.  Others in attendance see it as degrading to Jews because it has racy scenes.  It was later to become a play so reviled by American Jews because it dared to present them as human with all its messy faults and foibles.

Nonetheless, one man, Lemml, a modest tailor, endorses Asch’s craft and becomes the play’s stage manager.  Over the years God of Vengeance is performed throughout Europe and Russia to great acclaim, though the unusual story of a Jewish brothel owner, the trashing of the Torah and a romance between two women, portrays Jews as less than holy.  When the actors go to America in 1921, the play is censored.  The original Asch play opened on Broadway in 1923 and featured the first kiss by two women on the Broadway stage.  This innocent and playful scene has the women dancing in the rain as they celebrate their love.  The upshot was that the entire troupe was arrested for obscenity, later resulting in an investigation of the playwright by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Ben Cherry (Lemml) and the cast of Indecent. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Violin, clarinet, accordion, and what appeared to be a balalaika, serve as a mournful background to the destruction of the socialists’ high ideals.  Well-acted, it reflects a turbulent time during the days of politically-motivated censorship of those in the arts.

With Ben Cherry as The Stage Manager: Lemml; Susan Lynskey as The Middle: Halina/Ensemble; John Milosich as Moriz Godowsky/Musician/Ensemble; Victor Raider-Wexler as The Elder: Otto/Ensemble; Susan Rome as The Elder: Vera/Ensemble; Emily Shackelford as The Ingénue: Chana/Ensemble/Dance Captain; Maryn Shaw as Nelly Friedman/Musician/Ensemble; Alexander Sovronsky as Mayer Balsam/Musician/Ensemble; Ethan Watermaier as The Middle: Mendel/Ensemble; and Max Wolkowitz as The Ingénue: Avram/Ensemble.

(L-R) Emily Shackelford (The Ingenue: Chana/Ensemble) and Max Wolkowitz (The Ingenue: Avram/Ensemble) in Indecent. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Diercted by Eric Rosen; Choreography by Erika Chong Shuch; Music Direction and Original Music by Alexander Sovronsky; Set Design by Jack Magaw; Costume Design by Linda Roethke; and Lighting Design by Josh Epstein.

Through December 30th at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit

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