Theater aficionados have long considered Paula Vogel a treasure. Her plays — including Pulitzer Prize winner How I Learned To Drive — are generally unnerving and always thought-provoking. Her work has given voice to the typically powerless: those who have been oppressed and abused. Her teaching at Brown and Yale has nurtured another generation of powerful female voices, including Sarah Ruhl and the most recent Pulitzer winner, Lynn Nottage (for Sweat.) With this impressive biography it is hard to believe that Indecent marks Ms. Vogel’s Broadway debut. Fortunately it is an impressive one, with a story made more poignant by recent cultural shifts.
The events depicted stem from the development of another play: Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance. As newly inserted and much needed program notes explain, Ms. Vogel first read Asch’s piece as a graduate student. The tender and natural love scene between two women moved the budding gay rights activist to her core. Nearly thirty years later, director Rebecca Taichman stumbled across God of Vengeance and, as a descendant of a Yiddish poet, longed to understand why it had eventually been renounced by its creator. She reached out to Vogel and the two eventually had the opportunity to collaborate on Indecent, exploring the entire lifecycle of the groundbreaking and controversial piece.
It took 7 years and 40 drafts for Indecent to finally land on Broadway. The results are as significant and disquieting as Asch’s was in its time. Here is a play that takes place at a time when immigrants remade the City of New York landing just when immigrant populations are being targeted by a fresh wave of intolerance and xenophobia. Director Taichman said in an interview with The New Yorker, “My heart is broken at how much more relevant this play is today than when it opened at Yale, a mere year and a half ago.”
It is fitting that Vogel and Taichman share “created by” credit. Vogel’s words and Taichman’s vision are so deeply entwined it is impossible to imagine how one would work without the other. We are taken on a 50 year journey that starts in Asch’s bedroom with a reading and ends with his retirement from theater. The actors play multiple roles much as they would have in a touring troupe of that period. Beautifully crafted exchanges are interspersed with lilting traditional Jewish music composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva. Dialogue beats are enhanced with projections in Yiddish, German and English designed by Tal Yarden.
The cast works so seamlessly together that it is difficult to call anyone out. Richard Topol has been nominated for his featured role as Lemml, the stage manager who often serves as our narrator. Katrina Lenk has also received nods, perhaps because she plays the graceful “older women” in the play within. However she, along with Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi and Adina Verson are named simply “Actor” in the Playbill. Truly grace and strength course through every performance. Most of the ensemble transferred to The Cort Theater from a run Off-Broadway. Perhaps that explains why they seem so comfortable portraying a long-term well-respected road company.
This wrenching and precious play is currently set to run through September 10 at The Cort Theater. If you value theater that will change you, visit http://indecentbroadway.com for tickets and information.
This Flat Earth
“Are you there,” implores 13 year old Julie at both ends of This Flat Earth to anyone who’s listening. Nine students were recently killed in a school shooting, disrupting her feelings of peace, safety, and normalcy. This topic should be the springboard for compelling discussion. Indeed there are some threads about socioeconomic conditions and adolescent turning points that click. But for the most part, this is a ninety minute missed opportunity that ultimately promises that trauma will be all but lost beneath the unrelenting waves of everyday life.
Ella Kennedy Davis (Julie) and Lynda Gravátt (Cloris), Photo by Joan Marcus.
The piece is set in the recent past, and yet somehow Julie has no idea that hers is not the first school to have gone through such an experience. She believes that her persistent jealousy of a talented and popular girl who died might have caused the tragedy. In her program notes, playwright Lindsey Ferrentino tells how she experienced a similar sense of misplaced power when the incidents of 9/11 occurred the day after she had written a diary entry about the joys of peacetime. The transference of those feelings to sadly more common circumstance are diminishing to her main character. The excuse provided for Julie’s ignorance is that her father is too poor to have purchased a laptop. But even her best friend/would-be-boyfriend Zander seems to think the girl just hasn’t been paying attention.
The casting of Ella Kennedy Davis as Julie doesn’t do much to shore up the character as an interesting representative of her generation. While speaking too quickly at a very high pitch and slurring key words is all too realistic, it also left many of the audience members trying to keep up as they attempted to fill in the missed dialogue. Faring much better is the gifted Ian Saint-Germain, who captures the natural flow of Zander’s assuredness and awkwardness. Lucas Papaelias has trouble navigating the clumsy role of Julie’s father, Dan, but it is hard to tell how much of the difficulty is in the lines and how much in his interpretation. While no parent can protect a child from all dangers, widower Dan comes across as particularly ill-equipped and Papaelias often flails around in his skin. In the role of Lisa, a mother who lost a child in the tragedy, Cassie Beck is also constrained by her character’s limited responses. The only adult providing any constructive contribution is Lynda Gravátt’s upstairs neighbor Cloris. Naturally she can’t answer the impossible, but she delivers sincere and often amusing descriptions of effective coping mechanisms.
The talented director Rebecca Taichman does her best to underscore the truer emotions in the script by matching it with genuinely motivated physicality. Dane Laffrey’s two story set works wonderfully, though it could use a few more tonal touches. Costume designer Paloma Young has put together a fitting wardrobe, particularly with a bag of clothes that plays a critical role. Adding to the mood as well as forwarding the story is cellist Christine H. Kim under the musical direction of Christian Frederickson.
This Flat Earth is one of several recent productions that poses probing questions about the world we are leaving to the new generation. The Artistic Director claims it was never conceived as a production about gun violence, but opening just a month after events at Parkland it’s impossible to view it separate from that issue. Even when evaluated as an artistic expression, the play is wan when compared to similar offerings. While there are moments when the authentic psyches of the teens shine through, there are too many uninspiring stretches. Performances of this world premiere continue through April 29 at Playwrights Horizons. For tickets and information visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/flat-earth/.