I recently spent just under 48 hours in lower Manhattan for a work thing. Apologies to anyone I didn’t get to see while I was there–it was a blink in and out of town. It was a crazy trip, but I did manage to sneak in a visit to Broadway on my one night in town. Three different people recommended Indecent, by Paula Vogel, and I am so glad they did.
It’s the most perfect piece of theater I’ve seen since August of 2008 (when I saw Arabian Nights at the Lookingglass Theater in Chicago).
I wish I had the words to describe what made it so good. I could explain the plot, but it’s hard to do it justice. Variety’s review does a pretty good job of that, anyway.
One bit that I loved was how it’s multilingual–I heard, in addition to English, Yiddish, German, and I think French? As well as passing Spanish and Mandarin. I love when characters in plays speak another language and yet the audience understands them perfectly, whether it’s in The Universal Language (Unamunda, which I still speak with passing clarity), Henry V (French, good luck!) or Translations (Gaelic, English, and Latin, if I recall correctly–haven’t directed this one, but it’s on the bucket list, largely because of this feature).
What struck me the most was the clarity, the commitment, the beauty of it. Although the beginning felt a bit like a caricature or stereotype, the play slowly became real-er as it went on; it’s clear this wasn’t a mistake, but a deliberate part of the playwright’s and director’s story telling. Something about the way the characters materialized out of those initial cookie cutter figures made the reality of them more tangible than if they had started out that way. There is a lot of repetition, too, that shows how the characters are growing before our eyes, pulling up from darkness like an old Polaroid developing. The play-within-a-play comes up, different scenes again and again, each time more fully realized. The play ends with a scene from its internal play that is so true, I forgot that it was acted. The beginning and end of the play used identical movements, stage pictures, and words, but instead of feeling like an annoyingly tidy bookend, the repetition highlighted how much the characters had developed. This effect reminded me somewhat of Copenhagen, the way we return to the s
I would have liked to see a version of this production “with the lights on,” as the play contains a lot of direct address to the audience, a lot of awareness of the audience. Any time I see a metatheatrical play, I wish that the house lights were up just a bit. On the other hand, the lighting design was gorgeous and powerful, which is trickier with universal lighting. I’m curious how them seeing us seeing them would feel different.
Another piece that stuck out to me was the entr’acte songs. The play is about a traveling theater troupe, and in between the various acts, we see them “on stage” at different theaters around the world. Sometimes this means that they’ve just come from a very emotionally charged, wrenching scene, and they have to do a funny (often dirty) song as if they’re on stage at a cabaret in Berlin. It reminded me of the circus acts in JB, which I retained although many versions cut them. My theory in keeping them in JB was that they might feel alienating, in the way that seeing people having a good time when one is grieving feels alienating. I didn’t think this would be a bad thing; if anything, I thought it would help the audience identify more strongly with the ever-grieving Job.
Observing this as an audience member, though, I learned that I was quite wrong. Instead of feeling distant from or resentful of the happy song and dance, I felt it drawing me more and more deeply into the play. The actors were connecting with me through every possible emotion, and each connection made me want to fall more deeply into their world.
After the show, I stood to applaud and then found myself frozen there, unable to imagine that the world outside the theater could possibly still exist, and unable to stop crying. I rarely have that experience of being so overcome by a play that I can’t move. I somehow found my way out, made my feet move, but I can’t stop thinking about this play.
Go see it. Seriously, do it. Even if you have to take a special trip to New York just for that, it will be worth the time and money.