It doesn't take long into "Indecent" to start hearing the muffled sound of crying coming from those around you. The tears falls fast in the emotionally powerful production, now open at the Cort Theatre, and continue well throughout its 105 minutes — so much so that producers might consider selling branded tissue packets at the merchandise counter.
The play, the latest from Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, charts the history of Polish-Jewish playwright Sholem Asch's revolutionary 1907 drama "God of Vengeance" — a Yiddish-language piece that became a sensation throughout Europe thanks to dozens of translations, but was pulled after six weeks on Broadway in 1923 when its entire cast, producer and owners of the theater were indicted and convicted on charges of obscenity.
It's a real-life controversy not often remembered by modern history. The cause of the outrage? The play's lesbian romance — the love of which was downplayed when key scenes were stripped away by the show's producers in an effort to censor the story for American audiences. Those cuts had the opposite effect, instead leaving behind an couplining that felt over-sexualized.
That was just one of the many battles "God of Vengeance" had along its long road. As we learn, Asch’s work divided members of his own community for years — some calling him traitorous for exposing religious hypocrisy among his own faith (like when in the play's conclusion, a Jewish pimp hurls a Torah scroll at his daughter and condemns her to a life of prostitution), and others considering his honest look at the flaws in their lives to be groundbreaking.
There was also the toughest chapter in the play's history — the holocaust, which wiped out millions of Jews and, in the case of "God of Vengeance," the artists and art who told their stories.
This is where "Indecent" starts: With a company of seven actors rising from the ashes of history to tell the story of those lost before them, a literal stream of gray ash pouring from their sleeves as they move around the stage. Frankly, I would have been crying too like many of those around me, but I was holding my breath instead — stunned by the sheer beauty and sadness of it all.
Director Rebecca Taichman (who co-conceived the play with Vogel) has many more gems like that throughout her beautiful and arresting staging. While set designer Riccardo Hernandez's basic bare proscenium may look minimal, Taichman has structured the action such that nearly every scene is filled with surprises. (One, towards the play's end, was so effective applause broke out).
There's music too (played by a trio of musicians) whose songs helps paint a more rounded cultural perspective on the story being told. All are composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva with the exception of a period tune titled "Wiegala." Written by Hse Kelin — a nurse at the children's hospital in Theresienstadt — she famously sang the tune in line as she and her patients made their way to the chambers.
It would be hard to find a weak link among the cast, all transferring with the production after it's acclaimed Off-Broadway run at downtown's Vineyard Theatre last year. Playing a handful of roles each, you'll marvel as they lose and gain costume pieces, accents and mannerisms to bring the many voices involved in this play's past to life.
A standout is the graceful Katrina Lenk, who plays (among other parts) one of the more outspoken actors in the "God of Vengeance" company. The "Once" alum will break your heart with her fragility and passion, especially as the show reaches its tragic end.
If there's a complaint to be had with "Indecent," it's that by so often switching its characters, it can be challenging to get emotionally invested in a central protagonist's journey. The play's trajectory is confusing enough, jumping time periods and locations so quickly (Tal Yarden's projections help a lot here, but not enough). Without someone steering this ship, it's easy to get lost. Even when recurring characters like Sholem Asch appear again, they've often been gone so long that you've forgotten where you last saw them — and their narrative can only be so deep. ("Come from Away" uses a similar technique this season, to a similar result).
But perhaps that's just force of habit. Because the real central character in "Indecent" is "God of Vengeance." And though that made it much harder to sometimes connect to Vogel's play (especially since we don't see enough of "God of Vengeance"), Taichman's staging here is strong enough here to make up for what is lacking.
This is a play about, among other things, the power of theater and the tragedy of art being forgotten in time. You won't want to miss it.
"Indecent" at the Cort Theatre (138 W 48th St.). Tickets: (212) 239-6200 or Telecharge.com.