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The American masthead


Written by Paula Vogel
Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1 until November 27 2021
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell
Published on September 17, 2021

Indecent From left: Molly Osborne, Alexandra Silber and Finbar Lynch in Indecent PHOTO: JOHAN PERSSON

A great gilded proscenium arch dominates upstage as you enter the auditorium and are greeted by the company seated in a row. It’s a perfect introduction to this utterly theatrical piece which bursts with the energy of vaudeville. A troupe of 7 actors and 3 musicians recount the story in a series of tableaux, each playing multiple parts but all a type across the ages.

And what a story. It recounts the history of a banned play by Yiddish author Sholem Asche which caused a scandal within Jewish circles and when it hit Broadway in 1923 was duly shut down with the cast being charged under the obscenity laws.

So, it’s a play about a play, God of Vengeance, and it grapples with serious themes but in no way is a solemn lecture. Instead, Paula Vogel wittily explores such themes as sexual liberation, the limits of assimilation in theatrical taste and the history of group solidarity, that is when the group in question feels utterly besieged by the host society.

It comes to us from Broadway where director Rebecca Taichman rightly won the Tony for her efforts as she crafts a gloriously spectacle in which we get under the skin of these fascinating characters, aided by a wonderful score by Aaron Halva. It’s not a musical per se but rather infused throughout with klezmer songs wonderfully arranged by Lisa Gutkin.

Vogel and Taichman’s triumph here is just pure mastery of stagecraft, as they deftly recount a multi city, multi era story with the greatest of ease. The story makes giant leaps, but with clever use of captions nothing is lost.

It’s the brilliant ensemble company that makes it. 7 actors and a trio of onstage musicians infuse it with an addictive energy. It begins in Warsaw in 1907 as an ambitious young playwright Asch (Joseph Timms) presents his latest work to the local theatrical gatekeepers.

The central character of his play is a Jewish patriarch who runs a brothel, no less, from the basement of his home. He has commissioned a Torah scroll to redeem his sins but doesn’t bank on his precious daughter falling head over heels with one of the women downstairs.

Presenting a lesbian relationship as serious, passionate, and loving was an earthquake for the time and Ashe was immediately condemned within the community in each place for potentially giving ammunition to anti-Semites. It eventually found a berth in decadent Weimar-era Berlin and when it got to New York, where Asch had emigrated, it was eventually shut down by the police.

Vogel focuses on one particularly poignant production given by a starving troupe of actors in a secret attic room in the Jewish Ghetto in Lodz, just as the Nazi horror was about to enfold. It ends with the irony of Asch himself then being caught up in the McCarthy witch hunts and fleeing to London.

Veterans like Peter Polycarpou and Beverly Klein are a joy to behold, etching different colorful characters and stealing every scene, but the younger generation hold their own too. Alexandra Silber and Molly Osbourne impress as the lesbian lovers, bringing both intelligence and an erotic intensity to the rain-drenched kiss scene, which sparked the outrage in the first place. Finbar Lynch is a standout as Lemml, an inoffensive stage manager who first recognized the play’s quality and stuck with it over the decades across various incarnations. Considering the scale here, the production values are top notch, with the golden hues and stark footlights of Christopher Akerlind’s lighting particularly notable.

Indecent The company of Indecent PHOTO: JOHAN PERSSON




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