‘Indecent’ at La Jolla Playhouse, history of comedy makes book

Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in INDECENT. Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2015.
Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in INDECENT. Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2015.

If it’s fluff you want on stage, there’s no shortage of it at the moment. For something of greater substance, try Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” at La Jolla Playhouse (in its world premiere through Dec. 10). There are probably few current shows as complex and demanding as this densely plotted drama, but it’s rich and rewarding despite its flaws.

The convoluted backstory of Sholem Asch’s controversial 1907 Yiddish-language play “The God of Vengeance” spans several decades. It focuses on the show’s 1922-23 Broadway production; a scandalous lesbian relationship between two characters (a prostitute and the daughter of a Jewish brothel owner) resulted in a Grand Jury indictment of the entire cast on obscenity charges.

Director Rebecca Taichman does much in staging the play to engage the audience, as does the impressive ensemble cast, headed by Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson (as the lovers) and Tom Nelis (as actor Rudolph Schilkraut, the elderly Asch and other characters). The finale is a stunner but the show needs work. Despite live music and choreography, it’s heavy going at times and needs a lighter touch; helpful wall “captions” set the scene but there are far too many scenes for the average viewer to take it all in. Call 858-550-1010.

“The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy” by Kliph Nesteroff (available in hardcover from Grove Atlantic) is quickly becoming a must-have for aficionados of comedy. Small wonder—the Canadian-born author, a former stand-up comic, may be the No. 1 authority on the subject. He has not only read virtually ever book on comedy ever published but conducted more than 200 interviews.

From Bob Hope’s days in blackface and Jack Benny’s tenure as a thief of other comics’ material, to Dick Gregory’s civil rights activism, Johnny Carson’s emergence as the king of late night TV and Don Rickles’ overnight career advancement courtesy of the mafia, Nesteroff seems to have ventured down every back alley along the trail and left nothing out. More recent topics such as Stephen Colbert’s explosion in popularity due to social media and Robin Williams’ suicide are also discussed, making this the most comprehensive and up-to-date volume on the subject one could desire (though oddly the author neglects to list or source his interviews).