Sholem Asch is having a year. The controversial Yiddish writer’s early twentieth-century play, “God of Vengeance,” landed its cast in court on charges of obscenity when it opened at the 42nd Street Apollo Theater in 1923, but the zeitgeist has caught up with it. Now, when same-sex relationships are generally accepted, the love between two young women depicted in the play is at the heart of Paula Vogel’s charming and touching musical production about Asch’s scandalous work.
In “Indecent,” now at the Cort Theatre, the Pulitzer-Prize winning Vogel (“How I Learned to Drive”) and her co-creator and director Rebecca Taichman bring to the stage the story of how Asch’s play, which he wrote in Warsaw in 1906 when he was just 26 years old, became a hit all over Europe, attracting the leading stars of Yiddish theater, but ran into censorship problems when it opened “uptown” in New York City in an English translation. The play marks the Broadway debut of both Vogel and Taichman, although the two women have long and lauded theater resumes. Both first came across “God of Vengeance” when they were students, and Taichman used the play as a basis for her senior thesis at Yale School of Drama.
Brilliantly staged by Taichman, “Indecent” intersperses scenes from Asch’s life and career with musical numbers set in European capitals and some short scenes from the original play itself. It makes ingenious use of projections to indicate the language spoken and occasional chronological time shifts. Vogel’s focus is on the primacy of the love between Rifkele and Manke, characters in Asch’s play, but also on the power and potency of art, on its ability to entertain and ennoble. That comes through most clearly in the character of the stage manager Lemml, radiantly performed by Richard Topol, who gives up a predictable life as a tailor to devote himself to the theater and to Asch’s great work, an experience that gives his life dignity and meaning.
In “God of Vengeance,” which received an excellent revival recently from the New Yiddish Rep at La MaMa, a brothel owner seeks to gain respectability in the community by commissioning the writing of a sefer Torah and making a good match for his teenage daughter, Rifkele. The truly daring aspects of Asch’s play are its searing indictment of communal and religious hypocrisy, phenomena that are just as common today as they ever were, and in all faith communities. (Think Ivan Boesky and Bernie Madoff, Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart.) The rain scene in the play, where Rifkele and Manke share a kiss, must have been a shocker, but their relationship remains a subplot in the whole.
Vogel and Taichman put that relationship front and center; they imbue it with the sweetness of the girls’ love and also with the symbolic weight of the prejudice and small-mindedness they encounter. The two women take on the mantle of European Jewry, also despised and threatened by a hate-filled enemy. In “Indecent,” Asch is psychologically and artistically crippled by his visits to Poland and the rising anti-Semitism he sees happening there. When he does not participate as vigorously in the defense of his play as Lemml believes he should, the stage manager quits in disgust. That sounds a warning to the theater troupe on stage, as well as to the audience. The forces of repression are abroad in the land and they must be confronted.
The Broadway cast of “Indecent” has been together since the play’s successful run off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre and they perform as smoothly as you’d expect from such a long-term ensemble. The play’s composers Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva play instruments onstage with some of the actors and sometimes dance with the cast. Music and movement, choreographed by David Dorfman, are used so effectively in the production that they serve to deepen the joy and pathos rather than trivialize it. It is a stunning achievement and a reminder of the full-on theater experience Jewish immigrants enjoyed in the Yiddish theater. And it was just nominated for a Tony! Asch must be smiling somewhere.
And Now for a Few Films
Roberto Berliner’s feature film “Nise: The Heart of Madness” is based on the actual work of Dr. Nise da Silveira , a psychiatrist in 1940’s Brazil. Horrified by what she views as the brutality of electroshock therapy and lobotomy, the standard treatments at the time, Nise (played by award-winning actress Gloria Pires) takes over the occupational therapy wing of the mental hospital where she works and encourages her patients to express themselves through painting. Many of them respond well to the kindness and freedom she offers them, and their work is eventually exhibited in museums as examples of expressionism and other modern schools.
Berliner takes an uncritical look at Nise, emphasizing the misogyny of the Brazilian medical establishment at the time and the country’s racialized class system. Most of Nise’s schizophrenic patients are black and brown; all the hospital staff is white. Nise herself is presented as a heroic character, fighting always for her patients’ dignity and worth. We see only painters, in keeping with her Jungian theory that the unconscious expresses itself in circular images. Didn’t any of the patients want to knit or play music or dance? Nise also allowed her patients to care for the stray dogs in the neighborhood, and one of the most affecting scenes is when a misfortune occurs to the dogs.
“Nise: The Heart of Madness” is quite touching, even though it never makes total sense. Pires gives a powerful, convincing performance as a woman who is not afraid to stand up to power, and the actors who play the patients are excellent. In Portuguese.
Buster’s Mal Heart
Rami Malek, the weird-looking guy from “Mr. Robot,” stars in this strange, unsuccessful thriller/meditation on the universe. The film is set just before the turn of the century, when there was all that Y2K craziness. The narrative is divided between three characters, with few clues to connect them. One is a bearded homeless drifter who breaks into empty vacation homes in the mountains somewhere, eating and sleeping and showering, calling into talk shows to rant about the coming apocalypse. Another is Jonah, a motel clerk who works the night shift and doesn’t make enough to get his wife and child out of his miserable mother-in-law’s house. Jonah seems unstable even before he meets up with a conspiracy nut played by DJ Qualls. The third is a Hemingway-esque fisherman stranded at sea, who talks to God in Spanish. The puzzle in the film is to figure out how these three are connected. The problem is that the characters are so distasteful and the film ultimately so tedious that I didn’t care what happened to them or how the puzzle could be solved.
A Place to Call Home
A much more enjoyable way to spend time is with the Australian television series “A Place to Call Home.” This multi-episode saga (four seasons so far) tells what happens to a very gentile-looking Jewish nurse who lands in a rural town in New South Wales. The town is dominated by one family with lots of secrets led by the steely matriarch Elizabeth Bligh. The nurse Sarah Adams has secrets of her own, beginning with why her aunt calls her Brigid. Turns out that her biggest secret is that she was married to a Jew who died in Dachau. That’s why her devoutly Catholic mother in Sydney disowned her and why she’s been living in Europe since the end of the war. This elegantly soapy series is set in the 1950s, like “Call the Midwife,” and it has a lot of the same appeal. Both shows offer a refined sentimentality and really solid performances, and they manage to deal with significant social issues without being too heavy handed. Also, there are all those cute hats. Available from Netflix on DVD.