Theatre Review: ‘Indecent’ at JCC CenterStage

The cast of “Indecent” at JCC Centerstage.

Set throughout the first half of the 1900s, “Indecent” takes the audience on a journey of a play within a play. On the surface, this production is about Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance and the controversy surrounding it. Written in 1906 in Yiddish, the play dealt with the love between a prostitute and the daughter of the brothel owner. It included Jewish prostitutes, a lesbian scene and the throwing of a Torah across the stage. While God of Vengeance is a forever present character winding its way throughout “Indecent,” the audience actually gets to see very little of the original play aside from the closing Torah scene and eventually the infamous “rain scene”. (To see the original play, check out the free event at CenterStage on April 10th at 7PM).

. . .the CenterStage cast does an excellent job . . .

What “Indecent” actually focuses on is the journey this play took from the first reading in the salon of I. L. Peretz in Poland, to its original production in Berlin, to its performances throughout Europe and eventually the Bowery Theatre in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan and culminating in its Broadway debut. The cast deftly takes the audience through this journey, welcoming us to the performance as if we are participating in a Yiddish theatre production from the “Old Country.” We are quickly immersed in the scene and then just as quickly transported elsewhere. The back and forth between vignettes of everyday life, historical events, the performance of the play itself, rehearsals of the play and the real life dramas surrounding the original cast can often leave the audience feeling as if they’ve been spun around and now need to find which way is forward. My partner, who joined me in this viewing, found this back and forth confusing, but for myself, this piece was what made this production so poignant. The unsteadiness, the not knowing mirrored Asch’s own uncertainty throughout the play. Why couldn’t Yiddish writing tell the stories of all  the Jewish people, not just the “good” ones? Was he doing the right thing by putting this story out into the public? How could he focus on his play and writings when there was so much horror going on that was being ignored?

Carl Del Buono expertly channels this up and down of emotions in his portrayal of Asch, leading the audience from his young, idealistic days of an emerging writer and playwright, to his success in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to his tortured psyche after observing the beginnings of the Holocaust throughout Europe.

Maya June Dwyer’s Madje is one of the forces encouraging Asch to follow his heart that things can be better, that these stories need to be told. It is Madje’s voice which continually pushes Asch to remember his idealism and to attempt to call him back to himself in the darkest of times.

Stefan Cohen’s Lemml takes on the roles of narrator, stage manager and the voice of hope and belief that there are better ways to do life, the belief that we are all human, inherently good and deserving of love. He mirrors Madje in the beginning and his enthusiasm and joy after the first reading Asch does in Peretz’s salon acts as a counter to the negative reception the play is given from Peretz and his fellow writers. It is Lemml’s belief in the inherent worth of Asch’s words which encourages Asch to fight for the plays production and it is Lemml who continues to believe in the necessity of telling these stories even in the darkest of times.

Underneath all that this play is on the surface, there is the undercurrent of so many facets of life. The want or need to assimilate in a new culture yet hold fast to your identity. The need to be seen as wholly human even when your life does not reflect the dominant thinking. Secular versus religious. Immigrant versus Native. The desire to be seen as an equal, to have worth. The need to have your story told and acknowledged as having value. “Indecent” touches on so many of these themes and the CenterStage cast does an excellent job of taking the audience on this ride of what is moral, what is “right,” what does it mean to be human and experience life fully.

Running Time: 2 hours with no intermission

“Indecent” is playing at the JCC CenterStage Theatre in Rochester until April 14th. Get your tickets here.