Contemporary plays can fall into intriguing conversation. Covering the same five decades of Jewish history as Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, Paula Vogel’s Tony award-winner Indecent also begins with a controversial text being privately read in a European household. Stoppard starts in 1900 Vienna with characters scandalised by the Schnitzler script that became La Ronde; Vogel sets out from 1907 Poland with a dining-table read of God of Vengeance, a drama by a young Yiddish writer, Sholem Asch.
Now almost unknown, but globally successful enough to have reached Broadway in 1923, Asch’s work attracted opposing intolerance – antisemites finding it too Jewish, orthodox worshippers not Jewish enough – but thematically it was precociously tolerant. A lesbian love story sub-plot – the first on the American stage – brought US courts and Senate to the stage door.
Structurally, Indecent is a play within a play within a play, positing that we are watching performances across many years by a Yiddish theatre company of a production about the life, despite numerous death threats, of God of Vengeance. With spectacular dexterity of voice (speech and song), body and costume, seven actors share, with only spasmodic confusion, 42 roles, ranging from a Warsaw tailor to a Nobel prize winning American playwright. A klezmer band trio is integrated into a Rebecca Taichman production full of visual coups. Projected text falls across faces and the stage like a snowstorm.
As the years tick down like a bomb, the defining moral horror of the 20th century waits at the end of the fuse. Having explored – from fresher perspectives than Stoppard – the histories of antisemitism, Jewish culture and the debate between assimilation and celebration of identity, Vogel then includes (as Leopoldstadt tactfully avoids) gruesome 1940s images so familiar from other plays and movies that indirect reference might have been more effective.
Though finishing in the 1950s, Indecent throws shadows beyond. Philip Roth, like Asch, later suffered the double jeopardy of being attacked by antisemites and accused of antisemitism by some Jews. Parallels may also be seen with the current cultural conflict over what should be said and by whom. Indecent is a brainy play staged with the panache of a musical.