Paula Vogel’s Indecent, now on Broadway after completing a run at the Vineyard Theatre, does something extraordinarily unique. While there have been plays dating back to Aristophanes that have celebrated the power of the theatre, this is the first play that I can recall where a play (in this case God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch) is the main character. Vogel’s play follows Asch’s as it is conceived in Warsaw, crisscrosses Europe on tour, comes to the United States where it encounters overwhelming resistance when it opens on Broadway, and returns yet again to Europe. Along the way, God of Vengeance intersects with the history of the Jewish diaspora and Western theatre.
Vogel created Indecent with Rebecca Taichman, the director, and the collaboration between the two has forged a compelling, indelible work of theatre. Working with a cast of seven (that feels much larger) and three musicians, Taichman gives the play an epic feel as it moves from continent to continent, and historical calamity to historical calamity. Asch’s play came out of the Yiddish Theater; Vogel and Taichman honor its heritage and avoid the hegemony of English. Utilizing a storytelling tool that Brian Friel developed for his Translations, Taichman depicts the trials and tribulations of characters trying to communicate across linguistic barriers. Asch’s achievement is only further highlighted by the challenges of language.
The heart of God of Vengeance is how an impossible love is found in the most trying of circumstances; the daughter of a brothel owner falls in love with one of the prostitutes. That love – that impossible love – brings down the wrath of, well, everyone else in the world. Vogel’s wonderful conceit is that just as that love is the hope of the world of God of Vengeance, so too is God of Vengeance the hope of the world of Indecent. It is the love of the play that drives stage manager Lemml (an excellent Richard Topol) to fight for the play even when the forces arrayed against it are overwhelming. Two poignant scenes – for vastly different reasons – stand out. First, after the company is arrested for indecency during the production’s Broadway opening night, Lemml has a conversation with Eugene O’Neill. The godfather of American playwriting bestows his artistic blessing on God of Vengeance; that endorsement speaks volumes to the power of Asch’s work. The second occurs after Lemml has returned to Europe, to Poland. Under the radar of the Nazi occupiers, he mounts a production of the play in an attic in the Lodz Ghetto. Vogel and Taichman have crafted a stunning moment in understatement here. The power and beauty of the play, the essential hope represented by the play in the face of adversity, becomes necessity. I am not ashamed to say that, after decades of theatre-going and developing the cynical persona of the New York theater-goer, I shed tears during this scene.
Taichman deploys the techniques of the Yiddish theater to tell Indecent’s story: music, dance, bare-bones sets, and tight ensemble work. The play moves seamlessly across the years and miles. There is not much in the way of star-turns for the cast of chameleons for together they bring God of Vengeance to life. Nonetheless, Tom Nelis (who has a mad number of skills including the ability to an Irish jig) and Katrina Lenk (whose character would go to prison for the play as written not for its watered-down commercial version) are stand-outs. If Indecent has a weakness, then it would be that it has three endings. The scene in Lodz, emotionally, feels like a fitting conclusion, but there are two codas that simply do not rise in power to the aforementioned moment.
One final thought: God of Vengeance, before it moved to Broadway, played at the Provincetown Playhouse following O’Neill’s Hairy Ape. This innovative and fertile time in theatrical history is currently being played out for New York audiences with Hairy Ape’s revival at the Park Avenue Armory. How fortunate we are to have that lighting caught in a bottle and given a second life here in 2017.
It was just announced that Sweat by Lynn Nottage has won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Well deserved too.
Following up on his contemporary morality play Red Speedo, playwright Lucas Hnath comes to Broadway with A Doll’s House, Part 2 currently playing at the Golden Theatre. As the title suggests, this play is a follow-up to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 masterpiece, which concluded with a door slam heard around the world. The production, however, is such a mixed bag that – depending on the focus – the individual audience member can either have a satisfactory evening at the theatre or a terrible one.
First to the good: Laurie Metcalf and Jayne Houdyshell. Metcalf roars through the production as Nora, investing the 15 years between the shutting of that door and her return with pathos, urgency, nuance, and good humor. Her scenes with Houdyshell (recently of The Humans) crackle with wit and an undercurrent of tension and loss. A play constructed around these two would have been quite satisfying indeed.
Next to the troublesome: Condola Rashad as Emmy (Nora and Torvald’s daughter) offers a winning presence, but she cannot resolve the contradictions written into her role. Often it seems that Hnath has written her a line for the purpose of being funny, even if it is out-of-stop with an aspect of her character expressed in a previous line.
And finally to the not so good: Chris Cooper. Cooper is an actor I have long-admired on film from Lone Star to his award-winning performance in Adaptation to Capote, but here he seemed completely at sea. I understand he has experience on stage, but he came across as unsure in the medium. His instrument, compared to his co-stars, was weak. Alas, in the preview I saw, he even called for line. He struggled to create a character with a clear narrative arc, and he failed to be a strong scene partner for Metcalf.
The fault though lies with the script. Metcalf and Houdyshell simply steamrolled over the play’s weaknesses, while Cooper could not resolve them with his process. Like Red Speedo, this work dramatizes Hnath’s concern with ethical behavior accompanied by staccato Mamet-esque dialogue. However, the play simply did not know what it wanted to be, or even when it wanted it to be. First, period costumes mixed with extremely knowing and irony-laden contemporary speech. Tom Stoppard made this work with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as his piece was an absurdist work of theatre engaging with Shakespeare’s while Shakespeare’s was in process. The lack of naturalism in both works played well with each other. Ibsen’s however is so period specific and so naturalistic that Hnath’s play has not more weight than one of those shallow Hollywood No-Fear-Shakespeare-esque retellings of a classic text. And while there is some attempt to explore the ramifications of Nora’s original decision to leave hearth and home, the stakes are extraordinarily low. Finally, Hnath’s play robs the original Nora of her power and agency. She returns. She walks back through the door. She seeks Torvald’s help on a matter that is too convoluted for here and never quite convinces in its urgency. I believe that Hnath wanted to build upon the proto-feminist impulses inherent in the Ibsen, but the results rob Nora of her remarkable pioneering feminist achievements.
Sam Gold, who seems to be everywhere now, keeps the proceedings brisk and provides a an appropriate sense of claustrophobia with his staging and set.
For fans of Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2 will provide a fun evening at the theatre. For fans of Ibsen, it will not.
How much did I love Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s new play making its Broadway debut? I first saw it at The Public Theater about three weeks before the election. It made such a profound impact on me as an audience member, playwright, and American citizen that I had to see it again in its new digs at Studio 54. Even though I was fully aware of its gut-wrenching conclusion this second time, I still shed a tear when it arrived. Sweat should be required viewing for anyone living in our republic – it is that important.
The lion’s share of the play takes place at a bar run by Stan (James Colby fully embodying the moral conscience of the play) in Reading, Pennsylvania. This is a working class bar where Bud and Michelob are on tap, and the patrons come to unwind from long days on factory floors and to bitch about management. It move back and forth in time between 2000 and 2008, the advent and the twilight of George W. Bush’s administration. Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis) have done something that has landed them in prison in 2000, and in 2008 they are released. It is not until the end of the play that we find out what that something is. The inciting incident of much of the drama is the decision by management of the local steel mill to move operations to Mexico and play hardball with its employees (demanding severe cuts to pay and pensions, a lock-out when they refuse).
Much has already been said of Nottage’s compassionate and perceptive depiction of the Trump voters. Like Stephen Karam with The Humans, she chronicles the fall of working-class families from economic security into an ever-churning chaos. Nottage centers on the anxieties of those who once were prosperous and have since fallen on hard times. She shines a light on how quickly they can find themselves in poverty, addiction, and shame. We see how anxiety quickly transforms into anger and then into rage. The promises of a return to greatness – though clearly hollow – would have instant appeal.
And if that is all Sweat just did that, it would be a good play for the moment and fade from memory come 2020 (hopefully) or 2024 (not so hopefully). What Nottage has constructed, though, is an American play for the ages, a tragedy of the American dream that would be appreciated by the likes of Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets. “Nostalgia is a disease,” says Stan. Part of what is destroying these workers is their attachment to a way-of-life that, while it had some rewards when times were good, is ultimately destructive. Even before the troubles at the plant start, Chris desires to leave the line and study to become a teacher. For this, he is mocked by his friend Jason. What matters most is tribal loyalty. To want something better is seen as a betrayal – as contempt for the life they all lead. Adding to the stew is the racial mix. Jason and his mother, Tracey (Johanna Day) are white. Chris and his mother, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) are black. So long as times are good and everyone marches to the same drummer: all is well and good. Cynthia, however, is like her son and has ambitions for something other. She applies for a position as a supervisor. When she earns the new job, charges of the hiring process being rigged for affirmative action are inevitable. Outside from the start is Oscar (Carlo Alban), whose family is from Colombia. That he was born here does not halt the charges that he immigrated illegally to take our “jobs”.
The tragedy here is that many of the characters feel that they deserve a job at the plant, even though they hate it. They are limited by a lack of imagination, by shortsightedness, by a sense of entitlement. When the workers are locked out, Oscar is hired as a temporary worker. The $11 an hour he is paid is a windfall, but it is an insult to Tracey. Rather than direct anger at company management, Tracey and Jason train their fire on Oscar exclusively. Again, one of the historic tragedies of American history rears its ugly head: those who should be united against those in positions of power and privilege are divided along racial and ethnic lines. Stan tries to remind his friends of this, but that his voice of wisdom gets silenced points to greater tragedies that will overtake this community.
There are no monsters here, though we may despise many of the characters’ decisions and actions. Nottage’s genius is apparent in that it is possible for, say, Tracey, to be both right and wrong at the same exact moment. Yes, she is right to be angry and frustrated and to want to continue to work (she is no looking for handouts) as she always has. But she is wrong to place the blame on Cynthia and Oscar. She is wrong to think she is entitled to a place further up the line because her people have been in the country longer. She is wrong not to understand Cynthia and Oscar’s history. And, at the end of the day, despite the hostility both verbal and physical, it is Oscar who fares best. Again, it is part and parcel of American history, that more recent arrivals respond best to adversity, adapt, survive, and thrive. That Oscar is the ultimate voice of compassion further highlights those core strengths. It is a dazzling achievement.
Nottage is part of a Renaissance of American playwriting. At the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that playwriting dying as talented writers went to film and television. Plays seemed small, concerned with the inchoate longings of clueless yuppies. Nottage like a number of other playwrights is utilizing the stage to tell powerful, important, and provocative stories that will have enormous impact – both on the personal and political levels – far beyond their initial presentations. Nottage’s Sweat deserves to be in the same conversation with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America or August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.
For right now, though, see it. Simply see it.