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Theater Review: ‘Indecent’ more than decent at Civic Theatre of Allentown

“Indecent” is a play about decent folks born a century before their time.

Their story, a story about actors, producer, playwright and a taboo topic of its time, is told on the Main Stage of the Nineteenth Street Theatre where the Civic Theatre of Allentown production continues through Aug. 29 in its Lehigh Valley premiere. The opening night Aug. 17 performance was seen for this theater review.

“Indecent” is a play within a play. It’s that other play, the play that “Indecent” refers to, from which the title is derived.

“God of Vengeance” by Sholem Asch, a Polish-Jewish playwright who emigrated to the United States, is the play within the play.

The English version of the play opened Dec. 20, 1922, on Broadway and closed April 14, 1923, after 133 performances. The play was directed by Rudolph Schildkraut, who also starred in the play. He was a well-known stage and silent film actor who starred in the original “God of Vengeance,” which was presented in Yiddish in Europe.

The Broadway play was shut down after its actors and producers were arrested, jailed and convicted on obscenity charges.

According to the Yale University Library Archives, “God of Vengeance” producer Harry Weinberger and the 12-member cast pleaded not guilty to “participating in an ... indecent ... play.”

“Indecent,” written by Paula Vogel, premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015. The original Broadway show, which was conceived and directed by Rebecca Taichman, was produced on Broadway in 2017. It received three Tony Award nominations, winning two Tonys.

Civic Theater’s production of “Indecent” tells the story in a contemplative manner as directed by William Sanders, Civic Theatre of Allentown Artistic Director.

Sanders’ production is elegant in design, direction and acting. Choreography by Sanders and Ava Pirie gives a fluidity to the actors’ movements, which include slow-motion, stop-action, and the exuberance of jazz-era dancing.

A number of theatrical devices tell the intricate story, which as directed by Sanders, takes on the form of cinema, with scenes sometimes flickering like a silent movie.

The play opens with actors sitting on chairs facing the audience. One chair is empty, that of the stage manager Lemml (Jason Roth), who take his seat after turning off the stage Ghost Light.

The setting by Set Designers Alexander Michaels and Marilyn Loose and Scenic Artist Jan Joyce, is stark, with a few stage props (credit Jason Sizemore) connoting locations. Lighting Designer Will Morris gives a burnished feeling to the scenes.

The brown and gold hues are augmented by glamorous yet understated attire of the era by Costume Designer Michael McDonald.

The overall effect in the restored circa 1928 theater with its art deco auditorium, art nouveau flourishes and rococo-inspired ceiling is that of time-traveling to the 1920s and a performance of “God of Vengeance.”

Adding to the ambiance is an excellent three-piece on-stage ensemble of Michelle Lemon, accordion; Bruce Gaston, violin, and Nick Suarez, clarinet. The score and original music by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva is in the mode of melancholy klezmer music. Musical Director is Nicholas Conti. Sound Designer is Randy Utsch.

“Indecent” spans Europe and the United States, with salon backers’ read-throughs, on-stage rehearsals, and performances of scenes from “God of Vengeance.”

Super titles on the stage’s bare black wall note time, place, language (Yiddish or English), phases, stage directions, and song lyrics. The technique, by Projection Designer Scott Snyder, provides valuable information and guidance.

Don’t look for guidance, plot recitation or spoilers here. One reveal: When was the last time you saw it rain on stage? (How did the Civic production team do it?).

Each of the actors in “Indecent,” true to the play’s concept, portray multiple roles and each is listed in the playbill as Actor, with the exception of Lemml, the Stage Manager.

Jason Roth, as Lemml, creates a sense of vulnerability and enthusiasm that is emotionally-resonant.

Anthony Rizzuto as Sholem Asch effectively conveys brooding, foreboding and inner turmoil.

Mark Stutz is riveting in multiple roles.

Will Windsor Erwin is memorable in multiple roles.

Patricia Birnbaum provides comedic relief in multiple roles.

Abigail Creighton and Kate Pistone are outstanding as the women in love whose love knows no bounds. They are graceful, giddy and sincere in just the right mix and at just the right moments. Each is in excellent voice and sing beautiful duets.

“Indecent” is an important work and one of the boldest theater productions in decades on the Lehigh Valley stage. The timing of this production could not be better. Kudos to the entire Civic Theatre of Allentown team.

“Indecent” continues at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28 and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29, Civic Theatre of Allentown, Main Stage, Nineteenth Street Theatre, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown. Tickets: www.civictheatre.com, 610-432-8943

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY BILL BASTA From left: Anthony Rizzuto, Jason Roth, “Indecent,” Civic Theatre of Allentown.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY BILL BASTA From left: Abigail Creighton, Kate Pistone, “Indecent,” Civic Theatre of Allentown.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY BILL BASTA The cast of “Indecent,” Civic Theatre of Allentown.