Inspired by real events, “Indecent” explores how theater producers and audiences responded to the 1923 Broadway debut of the Yiddish play “God of Vengeance.”
I admit that when going to see this play-within-a-play at Arena Stage, I questioned whether I would be able to relate to this production from playwright Paula Vogel. I came away with an understanding that the key messages throughout are applicable to any art that is challenged by traditional cultural norms.
Running until Dec. 30 at Arena Stage, “Indecent” takes audiences on a journey about public reaction to Jewish and LGBTQ culture in the U.S. during the early 20th century, as an enthusiastic young Jewish writer named Sholem Asch pens his first play, weaving together layers that include prostitution, lesbianism, religion and authority.
Lead character Lemml, who does not have a theater background, loves the play and becomes the stage manager for the run of “God of Vengeance” throughout Europe, then to the New York City opening. The play enjoys a positive and enthusiastic response during its European run, but receives a different reception in the states. This is where “Indecent” brings forth themes of censorship, obscenity, immigration, anti-Semitism and power that fed the struggles depicted by the characters.
The small troupe of actors in “Indecent” are seen in multiple roles except for Lemml, played by Ben Cherry. Lemml is the moral center in this production and functions as a narrator-type role. Further, Cherry’s role as Lemml serves as a connector between the characters and the scenes.
“In his love for this piece of art, he is transformed and becomes the torchbearer,” Cherry about said of the character in a post-performance interview. “He carries the torch until he dies.”
Playwright Vogel is known for delivering thought-provoking content in a manner that opens minds to different ideas. The Arena Stage production is directed by Eric Rosen who recently concluded his tenure at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre where he was the artistic director.
“Paula Vogel is one of America’s best living playwrights,” said Molly Smith, artistic director at Arena Stage. “She tackles difficult subjects, challenging her audiences to question, confront and learn.”
At the end of “Indecent,” I thought about a few controversies in recent decades within the cultural arts world. Non-traditional casting where women and people of color are given roles originally written for male or White characters, the 1989 Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit that had homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes, and the AIDS/HIV play “A Torch Song Trilogy” that brought out explored fears about the virus and the disease. These were artistic presentations that shocked audiences and made leaders inside of institutions a bit skittish.
“Indecent” is an important piece of art, as it reminds audiences to be open and accepting of different points of view.
Cherry offered thoughts on what he feels audiences will take away from “Indecent.”
“I hope they gain that resilient spirit and hope in humanity,” Cherry said. “If we bond together and fight for what’s right, we will prevail. I also hope people will understand that they are not alone.”
“Indecent” is at Arena Stage until Dec. 30. Tickets are $41-$95, subject to change and based on availability, plus applicable fees. For information, go to https://www.arenastage.org/tickets/savings-programs. Tickets can be purchased online at arenastage.org, by phone at 202-488-3300 or at the sales office at 1101 Sixth Street SW.