Any play that involves an obscenity trial has a high probability of piquing my interest, if only because the most fascinating obscenity is always the trial itself.
However, in Indecent, which runs at Seattle Rep through October 26, Pulitzer Prize– winning playwright Paula Vogel focuses less on trial scenes and more on the reason a state would use the courts to stomp out a play in the first place: power.
Theater has the power to change minds and thus to change the world, while also offering everyone a much-needed distraction. Every play exists to remind us of that cliché. But, despite some heavy-handed moments, the Rep's production of Vogel's play avoids seeming self-serving and overdetermined, mostly by focusing on the double-edged nature of theater's power. (As any actor knows—and certainly any playwright—theater can save lives, but it can also ruin them.) Along the way, the script resonates with contemporary issues of immigration in unexpected and truly affecting ways.
Indecent tells the history of The God of Vengeance, an early-20th-century play by Sholem Asch about an Orthodox Jew who runs a brothel. The controversial drama reveals the hypocrisies of Judaism—of all religions, really—and includes a romantic lesbian kiss with heavy petting in the rain. (You won't be surprised to learn that this was Asch's first play.)
The play, originally performed only in Yiddish, was a hit all over Europe during the roaring 1920s. But when it made its English debut on Broadway, the cops arrested the producer and the entire cast for obscenity—even though the kiss had been cut from the show. Implied homosexuality was apparently enough of a threat to the delicate sensibilities of Broadway's audiences at the time.
But the queer content wasn't the only issue with The God of Vengeance. Plays containing lesbian relationships were seen as just one of the many forms of filth that Jews were sneaking into the country. With the influx of Eastern European immigration, anti-Semitism and extreme xenophobia were on the rise in the United States, and so the obscenity trial was just one more way the country could harass immigrants.
An exuberant character named Lemml (played by Bradford Farwell) narrates this history as the years tick up from the 1920s to the genocidal 1930s, when he and a troupe of yellow-badged actors were secretly producing the play in the Polish ghettos. Even though The God of Vengeance risked making the Jews "look bad," the play's self-critique and self-questioning—which are, incidentally, foundational elements of the Jewish faith—were important enough to Lemml and the crew that they made sure the show went on even during the Holocaust.
Moments like that one made me wonder what sort of art the Guatemalan migrant, or the Syrian refugee, or the Uighur forced- laborer is making—and hopefully enjoying—during the rare idle moments they snatch from their oppressors in their concentration camps.
Incredible performances—particularly by Andi Alhadeff, Cheyenne Casebier, and Farwell—also make Indecent worth the ticket price. Each player switches between several different roles with different accents, and they even change accents depending on whether they're meant to be speaking English or Yiddish, and they all do an impressive job. Though Vogel's How I Learned to Drive is more common on the stages of regional theaters, I think I'd rather see Indecent appearing more often.