The final days of September should supply some terrible shocks—that is, if all goes well. On the 28th, Victory Gardens opens the Chicago premiere of Paula Vogel’s Indecent. On the 30th, it’s the world premiere of Bruce Norris’s Downstate, at Steppenwolf.
Indecent is more of a known quantity for me, inasmuch as I saw the version that ran on Broadway last year. In it, Vogel revisits the relatively obscure but wildly resonant history of a play: Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance. The sensational tale of a Jewish brothel keeper whose daughter falls for one of his prostitutes, Vengeance was such a succes de scandale in Europe that Asch brought it first to the Yiddish theaters of New York and then, in English translation, to Broadway. Among its provocations was a lesbian kiss (a first for Broadway in 1923) that not only got it shut down but prosecuted for obscenity, with what turned out to be horrific consequences for its cast.
The New York Indecent was at once lyrical and devastating. With Gary Griffin directing a cast anchored by great Chicago pros like Cindy Gold, David Darlow, and Andrew White, there’s a better-than-even chance that the same could be true here.
Speaking of provocations: Bruce Norris. The winner of a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his tamest play, Clybourne Park, Norris gained notoriety for several merciless satires, most spectacularly The Pain and the Itch, which derives its title from a small girl with a suspicious genital rash. Downstate brings him back to the abhorrent subject he only baited us with in Pain, pedophilia. The new play is set in a group home for men convicted of having committed sex crimes against minors—an offense we Americans collectively find so repulsive that we don’t mind punishing perpetrators for it even after they’ve served their time. Just try finding material more likely to trigger people in the era of #MeToo and abusive priests.
Downstate is directed by Pam MacKinnon, who worked with Norris on a superior Steppenwolf staging of one of his best plays, The Qualms, and—like Indecent—it features a remarkable bunch of actors, including Steppenwolf ensemble members Glenn Davis, K. Todd Freeman, Tim Hopper, and Francis Guinan. Another production with a fair, if not exactly decent, chance of working out well. v