By Alice Burdick Schweiger
Playwright Paula Vogel’s powerful drama Indecent explores a shameful time in American theater and Jewish history. It’s about events surrounding the 1923 Broadway production of Sholem Asch’s provocative, groundbreaking play G-d of Vengeance, which was written in 1906 in Yiddish and translated for the American stage. Asch’s play follows a Jewish couple who run a brothel in their basement and whose daughter falls in love with one of their female prostitutes. It caused an uproar when it debuted in New York and the producer and cast were arrested and put on trial for obscenity. Indecent, that transferred from the Off-Broadway stage to Broadway and opens at the Cort Theater in NYC April 4, sheds a light on that scandal.
“The charges were initiated by Rabbi Silverman of Temple Emanuel in New York City,” explains Vogel. “During that time, there was a prevalence of anti-Semitism and Rabbi Silverman feared the theme would promote more hatred against Jews.”
Vogel¸ who won a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play How I Learned to Drive, always wanted to bring Asch’s story to the stage. And then she met the perfect creative partner—director Rebecca Taichman, who is Jewish and had written her Master’s thesis at Yale about the trial. “Seven years ago, I got a phone call from Rebecca,” says Vogel, whose father is Jewish and mother is Catholic, but identifies as being Jewish. “She told me she always wanted to do a play about the obscenity trial and she needed someone to write it and my name had been suggested. I told her I think there is even a larger story to tell and she agreed.”
Asch had written a second act that showed two women in love. “The Yiddish theatre embraced the play with Asch’s original intention, but Harry Weinberger, the New York producer, felt that they couldn’t represent two women in love,” reports Vogel.
Indecent opens in Sholem Asch’s bedroom where he and his wife are discussing his play and sexuality. It covers the trials and tribulations of the play’s journey and ends in 1952 in Connecticut, five years before Asch’s death. The play also includes music from a three-piece klezmer band.
One of the stars of the show is Westchester native Richard Topol, who plays Lemml, the stage manager. “I have been in the play from the beginning, when it was performed at Yale, in San Diego and Off-Broadway, and I’m very happy to be in the show on Broadway,” says Topol, who was born and raised in Larchmont and whose family belonged to Larchmont Temple, where he had his bar mitzvah.
Topol, who graduated from Mamaroneck High School in 1980, says growing up in Larchmont had a big influence on becoming an actor. “One of my first shows was the production of Macbeth that my 8th grade English teacher Dee O’Brien directed,” says Topol. “Also, my mom took me to see many Broadway shows. Living in Westchester you can live in a beautiful suburb, have a great life and in 30 minutes by car or train, be at a theater in the city.”
After high school, Topol earned a BA degree from Brown then an MFA from NYU. He has appeared on Broadway in Fish in the Dark (with Larry David) The Normal Heart, The Merchant of Venice (with Al Pacino), among many other plays. His dozens of televisions credits include The Good Wife, Elementary, Law & Order, Nurse Jackie and Malcolm in the Middle. He recently returned from Prague where he filmed a movie for the National Geographic Channel called Genius: Einstein, starring Geoffrey Rush. It will begin airing the middle of April. He plays Fritz Haber, a German chemist.
For now, Topol, who is married to actress Eliza Foss and has a daughter, feels, “it’s a mitzvah to do Indecent,” and hopes that the show has a powerful impact on audiences.
“I hope the show will remind people why theater is so important,” he says. “And that it will make us more empathic and accepting of others, be they immigrants, lesbians, Jews or any group of people not currently fully accepted in mainstream society.”
Indecent, The Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th Street. Tickets (212) 239-6200. Indecentbroadway.com