Can a play be dangerous?
That’s one question asked by Paula Vogel’s romantipoliticamusicadramedy “Indecent,” and all of those syllables should be telling you that there’s a lot going on this ambitious — and, in Wendy C. Goldberg’s staging at the Guthrie Theater, stunning — play.
I saw the starker, subtler Broadway production, too, and I’m glad I did because it took me two times to realize the protagonist of this fact-based play is not any of the dozens of characters played by a magnificent cast of seven, plus three musicians. The protagonist is actually a play: “God of Vengeance,” created more than a century ago by Polish playwright Sholem Asch. Beginning in 1906, “Indecent” uses movie-like edits (which it calls “blinks of time”) to speed us through nearly a half-century’s worth of “God of Vengeance” performances, during which the play changes — thematically, stylistically and literally.
Various characters view those changes differently: Because of the trouble it brings him, Asch (Hugh Kennedy, who also plays at least two other playwrights in “Indecent”) comes to wish he had never written it. The actors in it cling to its familiar story like a security blanket. When a sanitized version of “Vengeance” opens on Broadway in 1923, New York courts convict its cast of indecency, largely because of its love story between two women (Miriam Schwartz and Gisela Chipe). And its stage manager (Ben Cherry) — who insists “a play belongs to the people who labor in it and the audience” rather than to the playwright — nurtures it for decades, making it his life’s work.
It is because plays belong to actors and audiences that they constantly change. In the first take on “Indecent” since it debuted on Broadway, this play already is changing. It feels more broadly funny at the Guthrie, for instance, where Vogel’s one-liners (“When the going gets tough, the goyim get going”) land with more force. That works well, because those big laughs help this production achieve a greater contrast between the hilarity of its early scenes and the aching tragedy of the final scenes, when “God of Vengeance” returns to war-torn Europe after its Broadway run.
Setting “Indecent” among the seats of a tumbledown theater of the sort you find on “lost Broadway theater” websites, also adds a new dimension. It’s as if the actors are ghosts, haunting a neglected theater (maybe the Apollo, where “Vengeance” had its brief run?) and reliving the play that now belongs to them (and us — if the actors work among the seats of a theater, facing us, that would mean the actual seats of the Guthrie we’re sitting in are their stage, right?).
It makes sense that the “Vengeance” actors would keep returning to their play as their lives grow more and more difficult; it’s in the play that they made friends, fell in love, did great work. It also makes sense that they would share the play with us right now because “Indecency” and “Vengeance” are both dedicated to one of the most important things about theater: that, when times are tough for humans, great art can help pull us out of the darkness and into the light.