The Jewish Nomad: Two stars of ‘Indecent’ talk about a play that’s about the power of the stage

Matt Baram (left) and Jonathan Gould.

I remember first seeing the play Indecent at the Segal Centre of Performing Arts in Montreal in 2019. It was an excellent production—which also pushed the envelope.

It tells the true story of Polish-Jewish playwright Sholem Asch, whose controversial work God of Vengeance was about a Jewish brothel owner’s daughter who falls in love with one of the prostitutes.

Though the European run was very successful, it certainly—ahem—turned heads when it opened on Broadway in 1923. 

What I mean to say is that the entire cast and crew were arrested on the spot!

Turns out a Jewish lesbian love story about prostitutes was too shocking for American audiences a century ago. (Fun fact: it was the first kiss between two women on Broadway.) 

American playwright Paula Vogel (whose father is Jewish) explores this story behind the story in Indecent, which opened on Broadway in 2017 and ended up winning two Tony Awards.

In this story, you follow Sholem Asch and his troupe through his process and aftermath of God of Vengeance.

Studio 180 Theatre, the Toronto-based company led by Joel Greenberg—who also directs the piece—is presenting Vogel’s play at the CAA Theatre in Toronto.

With a cast of 10 Canadian actors—most of whom are Jewish—this play is as timely as ever.

I chatted with two of the play’s performers, Matt Baram (an alum of the Second City Toronto Mainstage) and (Jonathan Gould who starred in School of Rock on Broadway) to get the lowdown on their production.

Why do you think plays like these are important for Jewish audiences to see?

Matt: I think that certainly the original source material, God of Vengeance, was important, especially to the playwright Sholem Asch. As we learn in the play, what he wanted to do was bring real Jewish life to the stage. Not just the theatrical epitome of Jewish life, but depicting real human beings on stage.
And that was very controversial at the time, for many reasons, because not only was he offending the Jewish community at the time, who were, I guess, instrumental in some way of bringing it down, but also the general public who had very strict moral laws in New York.
So I think there was a perfect storm of boundary pushing at the time, but it laid a foundation for Jews to be able to speak about topics that weren’t just, you know, how we feel about our relationship with God, more about how we feel as people.

Jonathan: I can’t speak for Sholem Asch, but from what we know of the play, he wasn’t necessarily trying to write about Jewish people. His orbit was Jewish and he wrote what he knew, and it just happened to be Jewish. He wanted to represent Jews as the everyman.
The play’s about life and history and music and censorship in laws and freedom.

How does this play speak to you, personally, on a Jewish level?

Matt:  It took me a long time to realize that my religion is Judaism, but I’m religious about being a performer. And I don’t think they have to be separate. This play allows me to do both, because it touches on God, in a way, and the backstage life of what it is to put on a play. You couldn’t write a more tailor-made play for me, personally.

Jonathan: It’s certainly ramped up this Jewish identity and this culturalism within me, that maybe I used to have when I was younger, when life was a little more simple and I didn’t have this many distractions going on. I’m not a religious person, by any means, but I’m very culturally Jewish. It’s who I’ve been, it’s who my ancestors were and what they had to struggle to keep. I didn’t have to struggle to keep my Jewish identity—in my 20s and 30s I just kind of forgot about it. In these last few months, it’s really reminded me of who I am.

Matt: There are a lot of people within the wheels of making the show that are not Jewish, but most of the cast are. And it’s really neat being around Jews all day and talking about the play and our lives. There’s something about that I missed that I didn’t know I missed.

What surprised you in the rehearsal process?

Matt: The one key element I was surprised by, going in, was that we were going to rehearse every day with a three-piece klezmer band.

Jonathan: When you do a musical, you’ve rehearsed the show and then you get what’s called the sitzprobe, like three weeks into the process. And that’s the first time you get the orchestra. So we actually had our orchestra from day one. So we’ve always been working with the music. And I think that’s a huge benefit, and it will absolutely show itself onstage.

Matt: When I saw the set and the effects that happen, my mind was blown. It’s already simply a very beautiful piece and then we bring all these other elements in.

Tell me more about how the themes of Indecent are relatable in 2022.

Matt:  The play almost becomes a metaphor for what we really believe in. And what are you willing to do and sacrifice to make your passion come to life? Are you willing to, you know, be carted off to prison?

Jonathan: Especially nowadays, with all these movements with equality and Black Lives Matter, those are all wonderful causes. But for some reason, when it comes to antisemitism and Jewish people—it’s not a comparison necessarily, but it’s sort of forgotten. There’s this forgotten sense that Jewish people and culture are still under threat. And the biggest threat of all is how subverted it is. For instance, Kanye West coming out with what he said. There’s not a lot of backlash. I think this play was addressing that in those days. Sholem Asch says, “it’s not because of the prostitution in the show, or the lesbianism, it’s because I’m Jewish.” That’s how he felt on Broadway. 

Matt:  Antisemitism is an ongoing issue in our community. This play is not outdated, it doesn’t deal with a problem that is from long ago that isn’t critical anymore. The show does show an old world where we think it’s all over, but it’s all coming in waves. And that’s the unfortunate part, but what the play does is show how human beings triumph over all of that. We want to live, and laugh, and survive and thrive under all of that strain. The Jewish people have done that so well, which is probably one of the reasons people feel we’re going to be okay. 


(Want to see more of these lovely actors? Jonathan stars in the CBC series Essex County, while Matt will be starring in the upcoming Netflix series Painkiller starring Matthew Broderick.)

Indecent runs until Nov. 6 at the CAA Theatre in Toronto. For more info on how to purchase tickets, visit the Mirvish website.

Ilana Zackon can be reached at ilanawritesthings[@] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

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