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When famed Yiddish language writer Sholem Asch first read his startling new play “The God of Vengeance” to Warsaw’s Jewish theatrical establishment in 1906, the results weren’t good. These would-be producers believed the young playwright’s drama about a Jewish pimp who seeks to gain respectability by promising his virgin daughter to an upright guy but fails because said daughter is having an affair with one of dad’s prostitutes, would play directly into the hands of anti-Semites. Asch, on the other hand, believed wholeheartedly in honest portrayals, good and bad.
So, Asch took his script to Berlin where — despite or because of sordid subject matter and a sensual woman-on-woman kiss — it was a hit. The play successfully toured for years before hitting a blip in New York. After doing well downtown, a reworked version moved to Broadway in 1923. Despite changes, obscenity charges ensued and the show was shutdown.
With “Indecent,” now playing at Arena Stage, celebrated out playwright Paula Vogel explores the making and subsequent runs and scandal of “The God of Vengeance.” Her compelling play within a play examination hits on issues like censorship, anti-Semitism, homophobia and timely anti-immigration policy without didacticism. It’s also a celebration of period music, same-sex love and the now greatly diminished Yiddish language culture.
Many of the characters are based on real people, but some are created by Vogel, perhaps most importantly, Lemml (out actor Ben Cherry), a humble Polish-tailor-turned stage manager who serves as protector of the play from its first reading through decades of performances.
“For Lemml, this piece of art opens his eyes to an entirely different way of existing and loving. It changes his life,” Cherry says. “Even when his idol Asch betrays him, Lemml remains faithful to play. The work is ultimately more important than his relationship with the artist who created it.”
Cherry’s connection with “Indecent” runs deep. The show opened off-Broadway in 2016. When the affable actor heard the production was moving to Broadway a year later, he auditioned.
“I audition a lot and never put my eggs in one basket,” he says. “I tend to think I won’t get the part. But they kept calling him back for me people to see me. Eventually I was cast as the understudy for all of the men. They got a good deal with me.”
Soon after, he was cast as Lemml in another production of “Indecent” at the prestigious Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. During this time, Cherry forged a friendship with Vogel whom he describes as “gracious and brilliant. Nurturing, but also knows what she wants and is able to convey her intentions to actors in a supportive way.”
He says with the piece, “Vogel offers an opportunity to see our queer roots. The women’s kissing-in-the rain scene is earnest and beautiful. And Vogel has written a lesbian couple cast in Asch’s play whose relationship feels natural and real; it mirrors real life.”
As a kid in Flushing, Mich.,, a small town outside of Flint, Cherry loved to dance. Even a traumatic collision with a coffee table while dancing to “Evita” couldn’t deter him. After majoring in Musical Theatre at the University of Michigan for two years, he didn’t find what he wanted, so he switched gears and went to University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem to study classical acting.
Lately, Cherry has been portraying the early 20th century Eastern European Jewish experience. “Yep. It’s the beard,” he says. “I grew a beard for ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ on Broadway. I think that’s what cinched the part for me. And I’ve have had the beard since. I give all credit to it.”
But his resume is wide-ranging. He has appeared in the musical “Goldstein” off-Broadway, the national tour of “Mary Poppins,” the regional premiere of “Oslo” at the Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, and numerous classics at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Cherry is based in New York. He has a boyfriend (also in showbiz), but gives no further details. After closing at Arena, “Indecent,” a co-production with Kansas City Repertory and Baltimore Center Stage, will move on to those cities, respectively, through the end of March.
Will Lemml continue to be a part of the actor’s life? Very possibly. Through the experience of getting to know Vogel and doing her play, Cherry has become extremely attached to the piece.
“I feel like a real life Lemml with Paula’s play,” he says.
But while Cherry is protective, he’s not unreasonable.
“I know I have to be flexible because new productions and new directors have new ideas. Still, I hold ‘Indecent’ as close to me as Lemml holds ‘The God of Vengeance’ to him.”