There are two immediately pressing reasons to see Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance, currently produced by the New Yiddish Rep at La MaMa.
The first is historical curiosity. This is the 1906 play that scandalized theater-going Jews and others at its 1923 production for depicting a lesbian relationship. Included in it--horror of horrors!--was a first-time on-stage same-sex kiss.
The second, and related, reason to rush out is that this is the controversial work serving as the inspiration for Indecent, Paula Vogel's inspiring retroactive look at the original production. Vogel's top-drawer undertaking, co-created and also directed by Rebecca Taichman, appeared at the Vineyard earlier this season and will open on Broadway in April with obvious Tony consideration intentions. Not a bad bet for one, either.
Along with these persuasive motives to attend the revival, there are a few reasons not to attend. Although I don't rate them sufficiently persuasive to stay away, they need to be mentioned.
The first is that God of Vengeance may have passed as dramaturgically strong over a century ago--i. e., once aghast onlookers paid attention beyond the licked-lips scene--but it registers as more than a little awkward now.
Yekel Tchaptchovitch (Shayne Baker) is the busy brothel proprietor and authoritarian husband to deferential Sarah (Eleanor Reissa, who also directs) and overbearing father to seemingly reticent daughter Rifkele (Shayna Schmidt). Aside from lording it over just about everyone with whom he comes into contact (some requesting monetary favors), he's also trying to marry Rifkele off in a beneficial cash exchange. (Yekel is called Yankl in other translations.)
Ready to slap Sarah around if the urge comes on him, which it does, and to chastise Rifkele, which he gets to do when she transgresses (as he sees it) with less-than-respectable Manke (Melissa Weisz), he is the actual crux of Asch's entirely humorless tragedy.
The crucial Rifkele-Manke get-together, carried on when the former runs off for a short time to the latter, is something to see but many today might consider the fully clothed bonding relatively chaste at a time when movies and television include sequences far more explicit. The Lena Dunham of Girls would likely chuckle at these previously outrageous proceedings.
Incidentally, while the famous besame-mucho scene may be the one that enraged the populace and even brought out the cops, it must be that presenting a Jew who's as unlikable as Yekel surely bothered those Jewish audiences sensitive about any Jews shown as less than upright citizens. It's a concern that hasn't abated much since then. Just ask Philip Roth.
A few other reasons that this God of Vengeance doesn't pass contemporary muster is that although a few of the actors are up to the requirements--Baker, Reissa, Weisz and especially New Jewish Rep artistic director David Mandelbaum as Reb Eli--a heap of the thesping leaves a lot to be desired. (The production is in Yiddish with English subtitles.)
The physical look (as opposed to the Indecent production) isn't convincing, perhaps due to a restrictive budget. Budget may also explain why this God of Vengeance is done is modern dress. Perhaps using period costumes was too expensive. Unfortunately, today's clothes--those for Sarah and including her well-coiffed sheytl (Vicki Davis is the costumer and set designer)--throw the effect off-kilter.
Maybe Mandelbaum, Reissa and Davis decided modern dress makes the point that the situation is as dire now as it was at Orthodox homes in 1906. If so, they don't convince.
One of the best 2015 New York City theater offerings was Jonny Donahoe's Every Brilliant Thing. During an interactive hour and a half, the charismatic and instantly lovable British comedian went about compiling a list of uplifting notions based on his attempting to find a way to cheer his depressed mother. The exercise eventually helped brighten his own romantic outlook, as well as those of his audiences'.
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have now documented the enterprise but without viewers' ability to participate--a restriction that may become yet another item to jolly up spectators who shy away from these kinds of immersive entertainments.
Every Brilliant Thing is a must-see that can now be watched on HBO. Check times and get ready to become brilliant.