Thomas Burns Scully
- OnStage New York Critic
Regular readers may remember last year’s review of ‘Death of a Salesman’ in Yiddish. It was produced by the New Yiddish Rep and, on the whole, I liked it. New Yiddish Rep specializes in theatre presented in the historical language of Ashkenazi Jewish people. I was recently invited to a reading of their latest venture: Sholem Asch’s ‘God of Vengeance’, presented in the original Yiddish. This play was considered groundbreaking and scandalous in its day. It’s Broadway premiere in 1923 prompted the entire creative team to be prosecuted on obscenity charges. The reason? The play presented what was almost certainly Broadway’s first ever lesbian kiss. (That story has since been chronicled in ‘Indecent’) Of course in olden days what was looked on as something shocking is now as passé as a glimpse of stocking. So how does a text that formed its reputation on scandal hold up in a world where what made it scandalous is now acceptable to the vast majority of its audience?
‘God of Vengeance’ is, surprisingly, quite a simple story. Brothel owner Yekel has had a Holy Scroll commissioned for his household. He is feeling the weight of his sin, and wishes to do something good. He feels it is too late for him and his wife Sarah, a former prostitute, but he believes wholeheartedly in the purity of his eighteen year-old daughter, Rifkele. To that end, the scroll will be placed in her room and will go with her when she marries. Unbeknownst to Yekel, however, Rifkele has fallen in love with Manke, one of the prostitutes in Yekel’s brothel. She runs off one night with Manke. Yekel, ignorant to the full story, believes she has run off to become a prostitute. When she returns the questions are as uncomfortable as the answers and tempestuous misunderstanding abounds.
Overall, the play holds up, though, occasionally, by the skin of its teeth. It’s not that the content feels dated, the lesbian characters have actually aged surprisingly well. They feel authentic and unfetishized. What holds the play back is the overbearing self-deprecation of the religious characters. It doesn’t feel out of place, people of that time and background presented with that situation would most likely behave in such a way… but there’s just so much of it. About thirty minutes of the play is Yekel recriminating himself and apologizing loudly to God for every sin he has ever committed. At certain point you just want to tell him to repress it and cry in the shower like the rest of us do. It pads the runtime unnecessarily, and stalls the plot. It is, however, a pleasantly uniting experience to realize that Jewish people also suffer from Catholic guilt.
I want to return to the lesbians again for a minute. I mentioned them in passing sentences earlier, but I want to restate again how well they are presented. For every line of tiring masochistic religionisms, there is a beautiful, romantic line of distilled love between the two girls. This aspect of the show catches you off-guard. The text has a simple, soothing lyricality in these dialogues that holds you in rapturous fixation. You completely believe these two young women are in love. It’s some of the best written romance I’ve heard out loud in a while. Essentially, this romance is what elevates the play. Taken just on it’s plot points, the show is little better than a Lifetime Channel movie, but the poetry of the language allows it to transcend such trappings.
The rest of the play is solid. Not terribly groundbreaking, but conniving prostitutes and lying brothel workers make for decent diversions and feed back in to the main plot neatly. I would still say the show needs about twenty or so minutes clipped from it. Perhaps this is the curse of the staged reading, but particularly in a show where the non-Yiddish speaking portion of the audience will be reading the English super-titles, you have to worry about the mental fatigue of the audience. One hour and fifty minutes with no intermission is a long time to do that. I would be interested in seeing a full staging of this piece, though I’d want it to go through a dramaturge first. New Yiddish Rep have succeeded in introducing me to a striking play that I did not know about prior, one that still has something to offer to a long conversation.
‘God of Vengeance’ was presented by the New Yiddish Rep as part of the Festival of New Jewish Theatre. It was directed by Eleanor Reissa. For more information about the New Yiddish Rep please visit newyiddishrep.org. For more information about the festival, visit jewishplaysproject.org.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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