On March 6, 1923, between acts of God of Vengeance, which had begun its Broadway run at the Apollo Theatre on February 19, detectives informed the twelve actors and the producer that they had been indicted for “unlawfully advertising, giving, presenting, and participating in an obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama or play.” The cast of the show, which was written by Sholem Asch in Yiddish in 1906 but performed in English at the Apollo following a downtown engagement at the Provincetown Playhouse, included Morris Carnovsky, Sam Jaffe, and director and star Rudolph Schildkraut, who had originated the role of Yankl in the 1907 German version; the producer was First Amendment lawyer Harry Weinberger, who fought the charges and ultimately won on appeal. God of Vengeance is currently running at La MaMa, in a fine, if bumpy, New Yiddish Rep production that continues through January 22. One of the main reasons the play is being revived now is that the controversy that swirled around it almost a century ago is the subject of Rebecca Taichman and Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel’s Indecent, which is transferring to Broadway in April after playing the Vineyard Theatre last spring. It also feels necessary as anti-Semitic rhetoric increases around the world; in fact, there is often debate whether the play itself contains anti-Semitic sentiment. Performed in Yiddish with English supertitles, God of Vengeance is a tale of family and responsibility in a Jewish Orthodox community. Yankl (Shane Baker) operates a brothel out of his basement, which makes him nervous about the future of his teenage daughter, Rifkele (Shayna Schmidt), so the less-than-virtuous businessman decides to pay for a new Sefer Torah for his daughter, believing the deed will protect her innocence and help find her a good husband despite what goes on downstairs, which is no secret. Even rabbi and matchmaker Reb Eli (New Yiddish Rep artistic director David Mandelbaum) knows what goes on below, but as long as there’s money in it for him and the Torah scribe (Eli Rosen), he is willing to look the other way. At a party for some local destitute people, Yankl declares, “Poor or rich, let the whole town know! What I am, I am. What she is, she is. It’s all true — everything. But if they say a word against my daughter . . . I’ll split their heads with this bottle!” Later, when pimp Shloyme (Luzer Twersky) suggests that Rifkele would “do good business” as a prostitute, Yankl explodes, crying out, “If you mention her name, I’ll slit your guts. She doesn’t know you, and you don’t know her!” Yankl is also upset with his wife, Sarah (director Eleanor Reissa), who has encouraged Rifkele to become friendly with one of the prostitutes, Manke (Melissa Weisz). “I don’t want my home mixing with downstairs! Keep them separate from each other. Like kosher and treyf!” he demands. But the friendship grows into something more when Rifkele and Manke declare their love for each other in a beautiful, heartwarming scene that leads to a lesbian kiss. It’s an unforgettable moment, gorgeously staged — and the one that resulted in the indictments and arrests back in 1923.
God of Vengeance also features Caraid O’Brien as Hindl, Rachel Botchan as Reyzl, and Mira Kessler as Basha, three other prostitutes, who share memories of what led them to sex work. Reissa sets the story in an indeterminate time period, which occasionally gets confusing, and the acting is inconsistent, although Schmidt, who played Miss Forsythe in New Yiddish Rep’s Death of a Salesman, and Weisz, in her off-Broadway debut, are both terrific, eliciting an exciting chemistry. Billy Martin’s music curiously lets the audience know when a new character is about to enter Vicki Davis’s crowded set. Neither Baker (NYR’s Waiting for Godot) nor O’Brien, who is also a playwright and author, is Jewish, yet they have appeared in numerous Yiddish productions; Twersky and Rosen are former Hasids, while Reissa is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. The play, known as Got Fun Nekome in Yiddish, was first presented to the public in a German version directed by Max Reinhardt and starring Schildkraut; in 2002, Donald Margulies wrote an English-language adaptation that starred Ron Leibman, Diane Venora, and Marin Hinkle. And in 2013, a production in Poland, where the play was originally banned, has an audience age restriction: No one under sixteen is allowed. Asch himself was ostracized from the Jewish community when, between 1939 and 1949, he wrote a trilogy about Christianity, The Nazarene, The Apostle, and Mary. Thus, God of Vengeance returns to New York City with quite a history. The New Yiddish Rep version is an admirable, if not wholly successful, revival, but one that is well worth seeing, especially for those theatergoers planning on going to Indecent when it arrives at the Cort Theatre in April.