The Long Journey To Broadway For 'Indecent'

It began, ever-so-slowly, in workshops and then over a long rehearsal period, followed by previews and performances at New Haven’s Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015.

Then Indecent, a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) in collaboration with director Rebecca Taichman (Yale Rep’s Marie Antoinette), moved on to La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego where it had its follow-up co-premiere.

Its third and presumably final stop was last spring at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre where it received more praise by the critics and audiences—and an extended run.

But the show’s journey—about a play and acting troupe’s long affiliation with the work—isn’t over yet.

With its cast remarkably intact after several years of development and performances, Indecent opens on Broadway Tuesday, April 18 at the Cort Theatre.

Indecent, in a way, marks the indirect return to Broadway of Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance, the 1906 Polish play written in Yiddish and later shut down on indecency charges after it was produced in English on Broadway in 1922.

“It does feel somehow like a restitution of Sholem Asch’s play and that we’re bringing him and his words back to Broadway,” says Vogel.

Indecent also marks the Broadway debut of Vogel, 65, and after a 40-year career as playwright and playwriting teacher. (She headed the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama.)

Indecent centers on Asch’s 1906 moral melodrama, The God of Vengeance, the long history of that work and of a dedicated theater company that believes in the power of art to affect audiences and to change lives.

Asch’s work centers on a Jewish brothel owner who shelters his young daughter from his corrupt business in the basement of his home. He plans to marry her off to a pious Talmudic scholar, but when she falls in love with one of the brothel’s prostitutes, her father’s hypocrisy is exposed, and in his rage the Torah is disavowed and desecrated. The story ends tragically.

When it transferred to Broadway following its popularity among Yiddish audiences on the Lower East Side, a rabbi called for its closing because it depicted its community’s “dirty laundry” to non-Jews. That led to the cast and producer being arrested by the vice squad, thrown in jail, and put on trial for obscenity charges. The play closed several months later and its playwright later disavowed the work.

“I’ve thought about this story for almost 20 years,” says director Taichman, who is also making her Broadway debut with Indecent.

In 2000, when she was a student at the Yale School of Drama, Taichman created a thesis production called The People vs. The God of Vengeance, based on transcripts of the obscenity trial, interspersed with excerpts from the play, using Asch’s manuscripts, memorabilia, and the trial transcripts, which were housed at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.


Taichman went on to become a prolific director, but the story surrounding Asch’s play still continued to resonate with her. In 2010 she approached Vogel to join her in revisiting the subject.

Vogel first came across the Asch play in college in the early ’70s, just as she was coming to terms with her own sexuality, and was stunned by its portrait of a passionate lesbian romance between a 17-year-old girl and a prostitute. She was surprised to learn that the play was written 70 years earlier by a heterosexual married writer in Poland, who would go on to become a major author of the modern Yiddish literature movement.

Slowly a new version emerged, expanding Taichman’s thesis well beyond the trial as it explored the life of Asch’s play and the tight-knit theatrical troupe that kept the work alive.

“We wanted it to be about the life-time of these artists,” says Vogel, “who span two very wildly different cultures and worlds, a world in Europe and a world of remaking themselves here in America.”

And Indecent’s own journey?

“This time last year we were celebrating an impromptu seder with 20 of us crunched into the lobby of the Vineyard Theater. We toasted the play and the company finally coming to New York.”

This year’s toast should be even more special.

“For many of us you don’t get this shot very often,” says Vogel. “Now we have an even greater sense of purpose.”