May 19, 2019

in Plays

Play (2015)
by Paula Vogel

Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Choreography by David Dorfman
Music Supervision by Lisa Gutkin

Huntington Theatre Company
Huntington Avenue Theatre
Symphony Hall area
April 26-May 25, 2019

With Richard Topol (Lemml), Elizabeth A. Davis, Joby Earle, Harry Groener, Mimi Lieber, Steven Rattazzi, Adina Verson

Violinists Lisa Gutkin and Elizabeth A. Davis in 'Indecent'

Lisa Gutkin and Elizabeth A. Davis
in “Indecent”
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Courtesy of Huntington Theatre Company

A dramatization of the production history of the play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch beginning a century ago, controversial because of its vivid depiction of a lesbian relationship.

Vogel’s play features a bunch of characters, including playwright Sholem Asch who wrote God of Vengeance, the play within the play. That play features two women who love one another and who eventually get to kiss in the rain. In the meantime, there is a lot of fondling. The production history as depicted with detail in Vogel’s script follows a course from Poland to New York to Lodz where it gets performed in the ghetto during the Nazi era.

I saw this play in New York when it opened a few years ago and thought its strengths were in many of its production values. The projections on the wall behind in English and Yiddish evoke a clear sense of the mood and the culture. The klezmer music imagined and supervised by Lisa Gutkin of The Klezmatics, made vivid by onstage here by her, with support from Elizabeth A. Davis, is wonderful. And there are great choreographic moments created by David Dorfman. All told, those production values add up to a lot.

The play itself, however, struck me, when I saw it in New York, as too busy, too detailed and too painfully attentive to the sequence of events that surrounded the play within the play rather than evoking a clear sense of the plight of any of the characters. All kinds of themes get mushed together: Yiddishkeit, lesbianism, Jewishness, the theater. The Asch character seems constantly anguished, and it’s never clear why because the play does not give him much time to say so. By the end, when he’s older, he’s does not allow God of Vengeance to be produced because it’s a figment of his youthful imagination. The excuse doesn’t come off with any weight because there is so much narrative bouncing around that one barely has a sense of who he is.

The same goes for the central character Lemml (Richard Topol) who is an early believer in and producer of God of Vengeance. By the end, he’s screaming in frustration, but it seems over the top rather than an evocation of a developed sense of anguish. Again, the play barely gives any sense of what is going on, or has gone on, with him.

Adina Verson and Elizabeth A. Davis in 'Indecent'

Adina Verson and Elizabeth A. Davis
in “Indecent”
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Courtesy of Huntington Theatre Company

The two women in the play within the play and the actresses in the play who play them, as all embodied by Adina Verson and Elizabeth A. Davis, are the most vivid of the characters. Their sense of relationship – whether in the inner narrative or outside of it – is what gives the play warmth. One gets the definite appeal and heat of their eroticism, but what it really has to do with the outer play does not really come through.

Vogel has written some great plays – How I Learned To Drive (1997) packs a real punch and is beautifully rendered – but her effort here is much more suggestive than accomplished. It’s clear audiences love something about this play and production; certainly the combination of the Jewish, Yiddish and lesbian themes calls out to a lot of people. Indeed, the themes are wonderful to call out and it’s nice to have a platform in which it is done, but that combination of interests and themes does not determine the quality of a narrative.

– BADMan

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