Is God Listening? Ask the Man Who Thinks So

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Jack Chapman is not your everyday pimp. For one thing, he lives with his wife, Sara, and their daughter, Rivkele, in an apartment above his Lower East Side brothel. Jack also wants respect, and not just on the street. Jack wants a seat in the synagogue, the blessings of the rabbi and a husband for his 17-year-old Rivkele. But time is running short, so Jack is trying to buy his newfound piety by cutting a deal with God. Mazel tov.

As the first act begins in “God of Vengeance,” Sholom Asch’s early 20th-century play that has been adapted by Donald Margulies for the Williamstown Theater Festival, Jack has changed his name back to Yankel Tshaptshovitch and is negotiating to buy a Torah that will not only earn him the respectability he craves but also provide a dowry for Rivkele, whose marriage to a nice Jewish boy he is also arranging.

When the sale of the Torah is finally concluded with a toast of schnapps, the scribe warns Jack that God is not only a God of mercy but also a God of vengeance. It does not take a prophet to know which one is going to show up in Act II.

Asch is a Polish author who wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish and achieved a certain popularity in the non-Jewish literary world thanks to translations of his novels, stories and plays. He often wrote about religious issues, and two of his novels were based on the lives of Jesus and St. Paul.

“God of Vengeance,” written in Yiddish, is an early play that was a success when it was first produced in Berlin in 1907. But when it appeared on Broadway in 1923, Jews and gentiles joined to bring obscenity charges against it.

There is nothing in the play to raise an eyebrow today, even the incipient lesbian relationship between Rivkele and Manke, one of Jack’s prostitutes, a classic whore with a heart of gold who teaches Rivkele, among other things, how to embroider. On the whole, the play is little more than a parable for the stage, and if there was a biblical text for the moral lesson, it might be that God is not mocked.

Mr. Margulies, whose “Dinner With Friends” won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, has moved the time and place of Asch’s play from early-20th-century Poland to 1923 Lower Manhattan and has worked overtime to infuse a sense of drama into what is a fairly straightforward morality tale. He has to a degree succeeded, although the play still runs longer than is necessary, and some of the atmospheric scenes that fill it out work better than others.

An opening vignette, for example, in which an Orthodox Jew visits the brothel after sitting shiva for his wife is humorously touching, but when two hookers reminisce about their mothers’ borscht and life in the Old Country, they sound more like Valley girls waxing nostalgic about the mall.

The essential element to any successful staging of the play is a strong, credible Jack Chapman, and Williamstown has an excellent one in Ron Leibman, who delivers a riveting portrayal of a bad Jew driven to be good, but only if God keeps his part of the bargain. Mr. Leibman is a mesmerizing presence on the stage, and in his hands Jack’s volatile and unpredictable behavior keeps the audience on edge.

Laura Breckenridge, recently in the Broadway revival of “The Crucible,” captures the confused mixture of naïveté and awakening womanhood of Rivkele, and Marin Hinkle is convincing as Manke, the good-hearted hooker and Rivkele’s budding lover. Jenny Bacon and Bruce MacVittie are both good as Hindl, a prostitute, and Shloyme, Jack’s nephew, who connive at his undoing.

As Sara, Diane Venora seems at times still to be searching for a characterization. She is focused and full of energy in some scenes, but in others she appears to be feeling her way. Larry Block, Sol Frieder and Joel Rooks add nice turns, respectively, as Reb Eli, the Scribe and the Orthodox Man. Gordon Edelstein, the director, uses a large cast of more than 30 actors effectively in Neil Patel’s detailed set to create a sense of the crowded landscape of tenements that made the Lower East Side of Manhattan one of the most densely populated places on earth.

GOD OF VENGEANCE: By Donald Margulies, adapted from the play by Sholom Asch, based on a literal translation by Joachim Neugroschel. Directed by Gordon Edelstein; sets by Neil Patel; costumes by Candice Donnelly; lighting by Rui Rita; original music and sound by John Gromada; stage manager, Kelley Kirkpatrick; production manager, Christopher Akins. Presented by Williamstown Theater Festival, Michael Ritchie, producer; Deborah Fehr, general manager; Jenny C. Gersten, associate producer. At the Adams Memorial Theater, Williams College, Route 2, Williamstown, Mass.

WITH: Ron Leibman (Jack Chapman), Diane Venora (Sara), Laura Breckenridge (Rivkele), Marin Hinkle (Manke), Jenny Bacon (Hindl), Bruce MacVittie (Shloyme), Larry Block (Reb Eli), Sol Frieder (the Scribe) and Joel Rooks (an Orthodox Man).