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Theatre in Review: God of Vengeance (New Yiddish Rep at LaMaMa Theatre)

Shane Baker, Shayna Schmidt. Photo: Ronald L. Glassman

"Today, the world is run by money." So says Sarah, the matriarch of the little family at the heart of Sholem Asch's scalding Yiddish tragedy. Written in 1907, God of Vengeance still packs plenty of shock value for today's audiences. Sarah, a former prostitute, is married to Yekel, who operates a brothel out of the basement of the family home. Since the business is an open secret in their community, you'd think that Yekel and Sarah would be pariahs -- and it's true that when they throw a party they have to scour the streets for the poor to fill their guest list. But, as Sarah cynically, but accurately, notes to her husband, "In today's world, even a religious man like Reb Eli comes to you for a big donation. He doesn't worry where you got it. Steal, rob -- as long as you got it."

Indeed, Reb Eli is happy to have a Torah scroll -- a sacred object -- made for Yekel, and is busily arranging to marry off Rifkele, Yekel and Sarah's daughter, to a nice young scholar. After all, the brothel makes such a tidy profit that Yekel can happily provide a dowry large enough for Rifkele to support a spouse. This plan has only one flaw: Rifkele has no interest in marriage, her emotions being focused on Manke, one of the whores in Yekel's stable. Worse, it's starting to look as if Rifkele is willing to work beside Manke -- for another pimp, of course; even in the stunningly amoral world of God of Vengeance, a few -- very few -- proprieties are still observed.

As you might imagine, God of Vengeance must have been an eye-opener for audiences in 1907. (Fifty years before Giles Cooper and Edward Albee explored the idea, in Everything in the Garden, of suburban housewives selling themselves for extra cash, Asch fearlessly demanded that his audiences face the fact that even Jews made money as pimps and whores.) One very good reason for reviving it right now is Paula Vogel's Indecent, an Off Broadway hit moving to Broadway in April, which traces God of Vengeance's checkered history across several decades. According to Indecent, the play was a sensation in Europe for fifteen years, running into trouble only when the New York production, which did just fine when performed downtown in Yiddish, moved to Broadway in an English version. Then it was time to call the cops. The affair ended in tears, with the play more or less suppressed; Asch, who by then had moved on, did little to defend his work from charges of obscenity.

Vogel's play, which was conceived in collaboration with the director Rebecca Taichman, may be slightly misleading, in that it suggests that God of Vengeance's treatment of lesbianism was its most provocative feature. She may be right, but, in Eleanor Reissa's production for New Yiddish Rep, Rifkele appears to have little more than a schoolgirl crush on Manke. It's true that Manke's interest in Rifkele seems more frankly sexual -- but, then again, she wants them to run off and be prostitutes together under the management of Shloyme, Yekel's rival. What really comes across at New Yiddish Rep is Asch's devastating indictment of an entire community's hypocrisy and venality. Everyone knows what sort of business Yekel runs and their disapproval (or lack thereof) is directly linked to how badly they need his financial assistance. The purchase of the Torah scroll is the first step in Yekel's plan to attain enough respectability to marry Rifkele into a good family. In Yekel's basement, women sell their bodies for cash; upstairs, in the parlor, his daughter is to be bartered into a bourgeois existence. In this world, women are commodities, no matter how they are traded.

Asch's dramaturgy is more than a little old-fashioned -- it takes two full acts of less-than-scintillating exposition before he gets to the confrontations that will rip apart Yekel's family -- and the play doesn't always get the help it needs from Reissa's direction. (An Act I party scene is especially awkwardly staged.) A particular disappointment is the Yekel of Shane Baker, who begins as a boor and a blowhard and never acquires any tragic stature. The third act is melodrama in the grand manner, and we should see Yekel implode as his hopes for Rifkele are so brutally shattered, but Baker plays him on a single note of irritability throughout.

Much better are Reissa as Sarah, who never met a problem she couldn't fix with a little coaxing and a couple of hundred rubles, and David Mandelbaum as Reb Eli, who is furiously determined to hush up the scandal emanating from Yekel's house. (Baker could do with some of the savage willpower Mandelbaum brings to his role.) Among the supporting players, Luzer Twersky is especially oily as Shloyme, and Rachel Botchan, a Pearl Theatre Company regular, is amusingly blowsy as one of Yekel's star employees.

Reissa has chosen to stage the production in modern dress, which is surely a mistake; Asch's narrative packs a bigger punch in its original time frame, and all the talk of dowries and Torah scrolls belong to another era. In any case, Vicki Davis' costumes don't help locate the action in a particular time frame or location. (According to the script, it is set in a town in provincial Russia.) Davis' scenery isn't terribly evocative, either, but it has the virtue of switching quickly between upstairs and downstairs, and the lighting designer, Kirk Bookman, has provided distinct looks for each; the first act is gifted with an especially attractive daylight wash. The sound designer, Jesse Freedman, delivers a number of effects, including wind chimes, along with reinforcement for Billy Martin's percussive incidental music.

Whatever this production's shortcomings, New Yiddish Rep has done us a favor by producing God of Vengeance, and anyone who has seen -- or is planning to see -- Indecent, will want to check it out. (Baker also provided the surtitles -- which, excepting the occasional anachronism, like "Cut to the chase!"-- are generally bluntly effective.) This production could also profitably borrow a bit of staging from Indecent, which depicts God of Vengeance as ending with Yekel furiously casting the Torah scroll to the ground, a staggeringly irreverent gesture that sums up Asch's mordant social criticism. Even though the New Yiddish Rep production's logo features a silhouette of a man holding the scroll over his head, no such act is committed. This is a pity; it would be the perfect bit of business to ring down the curtain on Asch's indictment of a society whose values are seriously debased, no matter how much lip service is paid to God. -- David Barbour

(3 January 2017)

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