A Broadway play about a play banned from Broadway

Miriam Schwartz rehearses the opening scene of
Spencer Chandler, Miriam Schwartz and Lisa Gutkin rehearse the opening scene of the Guthrie Theater's adaptation of "Indecent" on Feb. 13, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

An almost century-old theatrical scandal is the basis of a new play beginning a run at the Guthrie in Minneapolis this weekend.


Vogel said "Indecent" is a love story about the theater, and a lot of other things too.

Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel at the Guthrie Theater
Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis on January 24, 2018, for the beginning of rehearsals of her play, "Indecent." Vogel's career as a writer and teacher stretches back 40 years, but she says it's very hard for women playwrights to get their work produced. She says even after taking "Indecent" to Broadway, having it produced at the Guthrie is an important seal of approval.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"It is an embrace of women who love women," she said. "It's an embrace of a young married couple, where a young man at age 24 writes a play called 'The God of Vengeance' for his wife as a newlywed man, and writes the most spectacular love scene between two women that I have ever read."

The young man, Sholem Asch, wrote "The God of Vengeance" in Warsaw. It's set in a brothel, where Rifkele, the daughter of the owner, falls for Manke, one of the women working for her father. Vogel says the owner considers himself devout, and aims to advance his standing in the community through his daughter and the earnings from his business.

"And so he uses that money to bribe his daughter's way into an engagement and to having a Torah inscribed to keep her pure and chaste," said Vogel.

The beauty of the love story and the play's attack on religious hypocrisy resonated among the Jewish intelligentsia. The play arrived as Freud's theories and new socialist ideals swirled through society. "The God of Vengeance" became a hit in Yiddish theaters across Europe, and then moved to the Yiddish theaters in the United States. It ran for years in New York.

Ben Cherry playing Lemml, right, rehearses lines
Ben Cherry playing Lemml, right, rehearses lines from the opening scene as Gisela Chipe, playing Halina, stands behind him.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The trouble came in the early 1920s, when producers translated the play into English for a Broadway run. Vogel, who is Jewish, says there was a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States and in Europe.

"It's when it was translated into English that the Jewish community got worried," Vogel said. "How will people in America see us as Jews if we were showing our dirty laundry in public?"

When the play opened on Broadway in 1923, the police shut it down and arrested all the actors for obscenity.

"Indecent" shows the tribulation of playwrights who want to tell uncomfortable truths, Vogel said, particularly if they are members of a minority.

Actors rehearse the opening scene of "Indecent"
Actors rehearse the opening scene on the Wurtele Thrust Stage.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"Or do you withhold the truth so as not to rile up the anti-Semitism? The homophobia?" she said.

She said that debate continues today, with Muslim immigrants in the spotlight.

Vogel was careful to point out that "Indecent" is filled with comedy and music. Co-composer and music director Lisa Gutkin agrees.

"There is a real juxtaposition of joy and darkness," she said. "So that's at the root of the play."

Lisa Gutkin rehearses as Nelly Friedman
Lisa Gutkin rehearses as Nelly Friedman next to Ben Cherry. Gutkin plays violin in the play, and in the Klezmer band the Klezmatics.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Gutkin is a member of the Klezmatics klezmer band. She plays her violin onstage in "Indecent." She has been working on the production for three years now, and says she's enjoyed watching it evolve under different directors.

"Seeing the same play through a different lens — I can't tell you how exhilarating it is!" she said.

Actor Miriam Schwartz, who plays the brothel owner's daughter among other roles, moved to the Twin Cities due to the richness of this theater community.

"There are many actors in that room who I look to as role models," she said. "So Paula is like the cherry on top."

Miriam Schwartz, playing Chana, adjusts her costume
Miriam Schwartz, playing Chana, adjusts her costume at the suggestion of the costume designer.
Evan Frost | MPR News

For Vogel herself, it's the Guthrie that's the cherry. Even after a 40-year career as a playwright, with a Pulitzer and a Broadway run, she said, it's still hard for a female playwright to get her work performed.

"My feeling, very particularly right now in this particular cultural climate, is that women and people of color, and particularly gay women, we are being financially censored," she said. "Theater companies choose not to do our work."

"How I Learned to Drive," the play that won her the Pulitzer, didn't make it to Broadway. Until the success of "Indecent," Vogel didn't think she ever would have a Broadway production of any of her work. Even so, the Guthrie show is very significant to her. She she sees it as a stamp of approval.

"That I could walk through the door on this trip and say 'I work at the Guthrie' — it's a huge honor," she said.

Lights sounds and effects are dialed in on the first day of teching
Lights sounds and effects are dialed in on the first day of tech rehearsal. The actors deliver lines in Yiddish, German, and English during the play, and the production uses subtitles to allow audience members to follow along.
Evan Frost | MPR News

She hopes audience members will leave "Indecent" thinking about their own families and how their ancestors got to this country, and will feel part of the community.

Correction (Feb. 16, 2018): A previous version of this story misstated Miriam Schwartz's home town, which is Seattle. The story has been updated.

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