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Theater Review: OSU’s Righteous, Heartbreaking ‘Indecent’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Review: OSU’s Righteous, Heartbreaking ‘Indecent’ (l to r) Eva Scherrer as Rifkele and Taylor Moriarty as Manke in The Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of Indecent. Photo by J. Briggs Cormier.
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This week, OSU opened a raging, furious, beautiful local premiere of Paula Vogel’s Tony-winning historical drama Indecent, directed by Beth Kattelman. 

Indecent follows acclaimed Yiddish writer Sholem Asch through the joy and heartbreak of his first literary success, the play God of Vengeance. Structured as a classic theatre troupe, three men and three women play every role, divided by age of the character: Ingenue (Eva Scherrer and Evan Belsky), Middle (Taylor Moriarty and Matthew Lacy), and Elder (Kelsey Painter and Alec Reusch), with Mychaljo Johnson as the narrator telling the story and the stage manager, Lemml.  

God of Vengeance focused on religious and social hypocrisy through two women falling in love. When its English translation transferred to Broadway in 1923, the play’s run was abbreviated by the arrest of its producer and entire cast on obscenity charges. The conviction ruined Rudolf Schildkraut, one of the great actors of his generation, played brilliantly here by Alec Reusch, and sent the actors and Lemml back to Europe as Pogroms ravaged the new Soviet Union and the Nazis rose to power. 

Vogel’s play deeply understands the hypocrisy and irony built into the structures of our lives, the difficulty in making art that shows us as we are, the danger in its reception, and the compromises we all make to get by – alongside their tragic consequences. Kattleman’s cast digs into this heady material in Indecent’s compressed timeframe – a fast 90 minutes that never feels rushed. From the moment Johnson’s Lemml begins his story with “…But somehow I never remember the ending. It starts from ash,” and the cast stands as one and throws ash from their sleeves, this production gripped me by the neck and refused to let go. 

The youth of the actors helps sell the beautifully handled switching between languages. Title cards alert the audience if the characters are speaking English, German or Yiddish, and we watch their diction and accents shift with the character’s lack of comfort. Everyone does a good, touching job of this, with Johnson, Moriarty and Belsky particularly shining. 

(l to r) Mychajlo Johnson as Lemml, Taylor Moriarty as Manke, and Eva Scherrer as Rifkele in The Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of Indecent. Photo by J. Briggs Cormier.

This Indecent does an astounding job of implying an entire world, teaching us enough about these people to grieve as that world is ripped away from them. It understands how irony can be used to make things hurt more, to twist the knife, instead of creating distance. That irony gets some of its juice from the original score by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, woven with period pop tunes, played brilliantly by Arkadiy Gips on violin, Byron Rooker on clarinet, and Carol Fleming on accordion. An edge-of-your-seat, cabaret-style “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” with Moriarty and Scherrer melting down the classic Yiddish song, a massive hit for the Andrews Sisters, through its various languages, and a grim, gripping ensemble “Ain’t We Got Fun,” both burned into my brain. 

There’s no weak link in the performances here. Lacy excels at Asch (through most of the play) and a bitterly funny Eugene O’Neill, Moriarity’s Rifkele and others have the gravity of characters who’ve found their place in the world as it dawns on them what they have to do to keep it. Scherrer’s Dina and others and Johnson’s Lemml  find fresh pain in the classic and oft-told sting of youth’s first cracking. 

Indecent is a gripping, humane tale. An enthralling entertainment that doesn’t flinch from the evil we do to one another and the ways we fail our brothers and sisters. Kattelman and her cast bring it to wrenching, beautiful life. 

Indecent runs through March 5 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit theatre.osu.edu/events/indecent.

(l to r) Mychajlo Johnson as Lemml, and Eva Scherrer as Rifkele in The Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of Indecent. Photo by J. Briggs Cormier.
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