Malka Wallick (left) and Rivka Borek in a pre-production photo for "Indecent" at the San Francisco Playhouse. (Photo/Jessica Palopoli)
Malka Wallick (left) and Rivka Borek in a pre-production photo for "Indecent" at the San Francisco Playhouse. (Photo/Jessica Palopoli)

‘Indecent’ at S.F. Playhouse pulls back curtain on scandalous 1907 Yiddish play

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What’s indecent?

A lesbian love story, prostitution and the desecration of a Torah scroll as portrayed in Sholem Asch’s 1907 play “God of Vengeance,” according to Rabbi Joseph Silverman and his followers in New York City. In 1923, they had the show shut down during its run at the Apollo Theater. The producer and cast were arrested on obscenity charges.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (“How I Learned to Drive”) tells that story in “Indecent,” which she co-created in 2015 with director Rebecca Taichman. In collaboration with the Yiddish Theatre Ensemble, the San Francisco Playhouse will present “Indecent” Sept. 22 through Nov. 5. The show, which includes a klezmer-infused score, ran on Broadway in 2017 and won two Tony awards. This is the first time “Indecent” will be performed in the Bay Area.

“Indecent” reveals Asch’s original intentions for writing in the early 20th century about a Jewish brothel owner and his family. It recounts the show’s broad acceptance by European audiences for more than a decade and recaps the arrests in New York City. And it portrays the production’s bold and poignant path afterward.

Monstrous indecency — the insidious rise of fascism and antisemitism in Germany in 1923 — serves as the backdrop for the show. That makes it particularly timely in 2022, noted Susi Damilano, producing director and co-founder of the San Francisco Playhouse. “When societies go bats, blind and nutso, theater addresses that, and gets people to think,” she said. “With the openness of it, the theatricality of it, this play is a love letter to theater.”

“Indecent” includes some scenes from “God of Vengeance,” such as the lesbian kiss between a prostitute and the teenage daughter of the brothel owners. It was said to be the first such kiss on Broadway.

Bruce Bierman, YTE’s co-artistic director, knows Asch’s play well. In March 2021, he directed an adapted, videotaped performance of it. After Damilano watched the video, she proposed the collaboration. “‘Indecent’ is a powerful work, and we’re thrilled and proud to be working with S.F. Playhouse,” Bierman, 57, told J.

Assimilation is a major theme in the play. “This has always been a big topic for dialogue and argument amongst Jews,” Bierman said. “How much do we enter in; how much do we stay without? How much do we share our tsuris, our mishegas? How do we paint our people? These are huge questions, even today.”

Reflecting on a recent rehearsal, Bierman, who presents and teaches Yiddish dance and theater throughout California, noted, “When I was helping stage a cabaret number that lampoons Hasidim, I was hoping audiences will understand that the number is a commentary on assimilation. I also want to give Hasidim credit for their dancing, singing, music and storytelling, which spread joy throughout Eastern Europe. How revolutionary that is!”

With the openness of it, the theatricality of it, this play is a love letter to theater.

As a dance consultant for the show, Bierman is working with choreographer Nicole Helfer. “She’s amazing — she’s coming to dance classes, passing along steps and gestures from Yiddish theater to the cast and also sharing research,” he said. Bierman also is the dramaturg for the show. “One of the jobs of a dramaturg is to help define what a particular play is, whether it’s modern or realistic, how it represents the politics of the time. Rebecca Taichman directed the show on Broadway in the Brechtian style, which blends a storyteller’s narration with cabaret or vaudeville numbers.”

Of the seven cast members, just two have roots outside the Bay Area, and Damilano reported that each member has “deep connections” to the play.

Rachel Botchan, the show’s Yiddish coach, appeared in an all-Yiddish version of “God of Vengeance” at La MaMa in New York. The Brooklyn resident said she is helping specifically with “pronunciation, meaning, translation and phrasing of some dialogue and song lyrics.”

In the New Yiddish Rep production in 2016, Botchan played a prostitute and other female roles. In “Indecent,” she plays Vera, a founding member of the theater troupe as portrayed in flashbacks, among other roles.

“This is such fun for me,” Botchan said. “When I was first starting out in Yiddish theater, I performed with some of the greats who are no longer with us, such as Mina Bern and Ziporah Spaisman. I feel like they are with me, and I am honoring them.”

She added: “’Indecent’ is a beautiful tribute to ‘God of Vengeance’ and also to the lives of theater artists, playwrights and actors, and how they survive through time in the face of adversity. It’s also about the Yiddish language and the loss of that. I’m glad to see a resurgence of interest in Yiddish plays.”

Bay Area klezmer artists provide the music, with accordionist Dmitri Gaskin, a member of Tsvey Brider and Baymele, serving as music director. His bandmate with Baymele, Matthew Stein, is the violinist and Audrey Jackson the clarinetist.

Asch (1880-1957), the “God of Vengeance” playwright, was a Polish Jew who also wrote novels and essays. Some lauded him for creating a seminal work of Yiddish theater with “God of Vengeance.” Others disparaged him for reinforcing stereotypes and showing Jews in a bad light.

Presenting “Indecent” helps fulfill the mission of the San Francisco Playhouse, Damilano said. “We want theater to work our powers of compassion, to make the world a better place, one play at a time,” she explained. “We’re interested in moving people, in getting to the heart of human experience. Just like the characters in the show, our doing this play in our 20th anniversary season is an essential rising back up, feeding the soul with a big song-and-dance story, one with faith in the future.”

“Indecent”

Sept. 22 through Nov. 5 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. $30-$100.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.