What’s most interesting about the century-old play “God of Vengeance” – and, let’s face it, the reason why a new production of it is opening tonight, at La MaMa – is that it inspired “Indecent,” an Off-Broadway hit by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman that is transferring to Broadway in the Spring. “Indecent,” the backstage story of Sholem Asch’s controversial play, is a sweeping tale taking place on two continents over 50 years, packed full of characters, with deft stagecraft and smartly choreographed musical numbers.
The New Yiddish Rep’s production of “God of Vengeance” itself is not sweeping. There are no musical numbers. This is not the 1922 Broadway production, which was in English and resulted in criminal prosecutions for obscenity, the focus of Vogel’s play. The play at LaMaMa is the Yiddish version that Asch wrote in 1906, “Got Fun Nekome.”
Click on any photograph by Ronald Glassman to see it enlarged.
Yekel (Shane Baker) wants only the best for his daughter Rifkele (Shayna Schmidt) – which is to say, he wants to marry her off to a Talmudic scholar. This is a challenging mission for him, since Yekel owns a brothel. The house of ill repute is actually part of his own home, downstairs from the apartment where he and his wife Sarah (Eleanor Reissa) labor to keep their daughter virginal, apart from his business. It doesn’t work. A downstairs denizen seduces Rifkele — not a whorehouse patron, but one of the prostitutes, Manke (Melissa Weisz.) It might be unfair to use the word seduce, since it’s clear before we even meet Manke that Rifkele is in love with her, and Manke seems too fresh-faced and optimistic to do anything underhanded.
There is much that is fascinating around, and underneath, this play, a glimpse at a different time, place and set of values. Much is made of the Torah that, at the suggestion of Reb Eli (David Mandelbaum), Yekel has commissioned a scribe to create, a show of piety to get him in good with the respectable Jewish community.
With an English translation projected onto the backdrop, one can sit back and enjoy the Yiddish rhythms of a play that debuted in New York right around the corner from La MaMa, at one of the Yiddish theaters that then lined Second Avenue. It’s also intriguing to learn of the varied backgrounds of the New Yiddish Rep’s cast. The trashy blonde harlot Hindel is portrayed by Caraid O’Brien, an Irish-Catholic actress born in the city of Galway. Several actors are also (former) members of the Hasid community.
All this, however, is another way of saying that the New Yiddish Rep’s production of “God of Vengeance” is full of historical, cultural, political, even anthropological interest, but has less to recommend it theatrically. The productions of a century ago were said to be a mix of melodrama and “poetic realism” with “symbolic power” (this from a 1918 essay by Abraham Cahan, editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, which served as an introduction to the printed play.) The 2016 production at La Mama offers only the melodrama. There are some lovely moments, such as, yes, when the two women kiss; and several performers who stand out: Eleanor Reissa, who is also the show’s director, credibly underplays her role as the mother, avoiding stereotype. But the 11-member cast is uneven, and the show has a healthy quota of beating of brow and of breast. And, although the running time is only 95 minutes with no intermission, the three-act play feels longer than it needs to be. They often seem to keep on talking after we’ve gotten the point.
It is probably unfair to blame this all on the New Yiddish Rep, which has done more than its share in reviving and reinventing a lost culture, producing acclaimed Yiddish-language versions of “Waiting for Godot” and “Death of a Salesman,”
Times, and audiences, have certainly changed. Yet, there is some evidence that the play can combine its context with its content so that both are engrossing to a 21st century New York audience. That evidence is “Indecent,” which begins previews at the Cort Theater on April 4th.
God of Vengeance
At La MaMa 74A East 4th
By Sholem Ash
Directed by Eleanor Reissa
Sets and costumes by Vicki Davis. Lighting by Kirk Bookman, Sound by Jesse Freedman. Original score by Billy Martin.
Cast: Shane Baker; David Mandelbaum; Caraid O’Brien, Eleanor Reissa; Rachel Botchan,Shayna Schmidt, Melissa Weisz, Luzer Twersky, Amy Coleman, Mira Kessler and Eli Rosen.
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission.
“God of Vengeance” is on stage through January 22, 2017