'Indecent' is a gripping, complex play on art and censorship

Dan Norman Photography

Dan Norman Photography

In the program of the Guthrie Theater’s production of Indecent, Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel recalls being asked to write about the 1923 court battle over Sholem Asch’s supposedly obscene play, God of Vengeance. “I’d love to write this story,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s about the obscenity trial alone.”

The trial, which turned in part on Asch’s depiction of a love affair between two women, became just one inflection point in Vogel’s play. Indecent tracks a half-century of history, from God of Vengeance being unveiled in fin de siècle Warsaw to the aged Asch facing a summons from the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Indecent premiered in 2015, and last year it became Vogel’s first work to move to Broadway. The new production now playing on the Wurtele Thrust Stage also marks the playwright’s long-overdue Guthrie debut.

It’s a remarkable feat of storytelling, bursting with confident energy—and stirring genuine pathos—under the direction of Wendy C. Goldberg.

Set designer Arnulfo Maldonado envelops the cast in the crumbling remains of a once-majestic theater. Pouring dust from their pockets to evoke the tragically evanescent nature of existence, several actors rise like ghosts to enact the evening’s drama. Three musicians (accordionist Spencer Chandler, violinist Lisa Gutkin, and Pat O’Keefe on clarinet) take the stage as well, completely integrated with the proceedings.

The seven Indecent cast members, spanning generations, change characters as time progresses, and the fact that this is never confusing—even though costume changes are sometimes subtle—is a credit to the acting and direction, as well as to the clarity of Vogel’s writing.

Goldberg has assembled a locally rooted dream cast, clearly delighted to be sharing the stage as the ensemble of such a powerful production. A modest Hugh Kennedy plays Asch for most of the show, with the priceless Robert Dorfman balancing levity and gravity in roles including the God of Vengeance patriarch. Steven Epp has a memorable turn as a rafters-shaking rabbi, and Ben Cherry plays the stage manager who keeps faith in Asch’s vision even when the writer himself has doubts.

Ultimately, though, it’s the women who anchor this play. Here, that means Gisela Chípe and Miriam Schwartz as the couple whose onstage embraces echo their parallel offstage romantic relationship. They’re joined in the cast by a wry Sally Wingert, who goes toe-to-toe with Dorfman.

Tumbling through time with a wealth of fascinating detail and on-point musical selections, Indecent is a riveting exploration of art and intersectionality during a wrenching epoch in world history. Complex but accessible, the Guthrie production touches on profound sadness while simultaneously celebrating the joys of exuberant performance and trusting companionship.

Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612-377-2224; through March 24