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BWW REVIEW: INDECENT at Arena Stage

BWW REVIEW: INDECENT at Arena Stage
The cast of the Arena Stage production of Indecent. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There are some plays in the history of Broadway that you just scratch your head as to why they didn't have a longer run. Paula Vogel's Indecent is definitely one of those plays. It opened to rave reviews on Broadway, won the Tony Award for best direction and only ran 128 performances. The award win gave the show a considerable box office bump, but not enough to convince the show's producers to make a run of it in the summer heat. Thankfully, PBS preserved the Broadway production for posterity and the play is now getting a much deserved second life in regional theaters across the country.

Arena Stage is the lucky DC theater presenting Vogel's masterwork and, to a point, its production keeps a lot of the original Tony Award-winning Rebecca Taichman staging intact. This version is directed by Eric Rosen. Jack Magaw's set mimics the Broadway concept of a theater stage back to its bare walls so you can see into the wings. When a company of actors begins the show, the story of a little play called The God of Vengeance comes to life.

In 1907 playwright Sholem Asch (Max Wolkowitz) wrote a play that by today's standards would be considered tame. However, we are in the early 1920's so a play about a brothel and lesbianism is sure to result in a bit of a backlash. Asch's The God of Vengeance was in trouble from its first read through because of the subject matter. The infamous Rain Scene at the top of act two featured two women getting intimate on stage. The show played all over Eastern Europe before landing downtown in New York City at the famed Provincetown Playhouse. It was then picked up by a producer and opened on Broadway in 1923. It is here that the play really got into trouble despite some changes to the script for Broadway. The vice squad closed the show down and arrested the cast for committing lewd acts. A court ruled the material was indecent and the company - with the exception of the stage manager Lemml (Ben Cherry) - was put in jail. To make matters worse Asch has a nervous breakdown after seeing atrocities against the Jewish people being committed overseas. He never wrote another play and pretty much wanted to forget about The God of Vengeance forever.

BWW REVIEW: INDECENT at Arena Stage
ben Cherry and the company of the Arena Stage production of Indecent. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Indecent really needs a strong cast if it is going to succeed and in many instances Arena Stage's production does.

First and foremost is Ben Cherry's performance as Lemml the stage manager. His passion for keeping the integrity of The God of Vengeance is very much evident throughout. Your heart is on the floor by the end of the show because his performance is that poignant.

Another standout is one of my favorite local performers Susan Lynsky as Halina and others. Halina is one of the two women involved in the infamous Rain Scene. Playing against the equally great Emily Shackelford as Chana (the other participant in the Rain Scene) and others the two have a relationship both on and offstage that today is commonplace, but back then would have been forbidden.

Max Wolkowitz, as Asch and others, gives a strong, wallop of a performance as the playwright that just wants to move on. He can't even bring himself to back his own castmates in court because he is worried that people will laugh at him because of his less than perfect English skills.

Susan Rome as always gives another great performance as The Elder: Vera and others.

The excellent musical trio of Alexander Sovronsky (piano/composer of the show's original music), Maryn Shaw (violin), and John Milosich (accordion) provide the period musical accompaniment and also perform other roles throughout.

Unfortunately, there is one glaring casting error with Victor Raider-Wexler as The Elder: Otto and others. I found his performance to be quite stiff and one note for most of the night. This does not serve the material well as his characters include the famous actor Rudolph Schildkraut. With Wexler's performance Schildkraut wouldn't have been hired anywhere, except maybe Siberia.

Eric Rosen's direction as previously stated took much of what made this show work so well on Broadway and wisely left it alone. As this production will be playing two other venues (Baltimore Center Stage and Kansas City Repertory Theatre) after it leaves Arena Stage a few elements from the Broadway production likely had to be modified. In one particular instance, which I will not disclose here, I felt the moment was not as powerful as it should have been. Having said that if you have not seen Indecent before, you might have a different reaction at this moment than I did.

I am so happy that Paula Vogel is getting so much exposure in our area this season and very pleased that her best work to date is getting a strong production at Arena Stage. Despite my aforementioned misgivings about a few things, I urge you all to see this show.

The regional theater scene in this country gives new life to many musicals and plays that got a bad deal on Broadway so kudos to Arena Stage for giving Indecent the exposure it well deserves in our area.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

Indecent runs through December 30, 2018 in the Kreeger Theatre space at Arena Stage, which is located at 1101 Sixth Street SW Washington, DC.

For tickets, click here.

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