Glenda Frank on Broadway
12 October 2022
Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard, now at the Longacre Theatre, is a sprawling Chekhovian drama, a tribute to a shattered Jewish world. Although it covers almost 60 years (1899-1955) with more than two dozen characters, it is easier to follow than The Coast of Utopia because it is more emotionally compelling.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
The large Merz and Jakobovicz families celebrate, argue, love, make interesting choices, and suffer slights, insults, and incalculable losses. Even if you confuse the characters – perhaps I should say ‘when’ you confuse the characters – the dramatic interactions remain vivid and the events that bring people together are events in our lives: Christmas and Passover, a new born, an affair, a confrontation.
The two hours and ten minutes without an intermission sounded intimidating. The large cast, the sweep of time, all the factors that would have been cautions in the hands of a lesser playwright became part of the appeal of this masterful composition.
The theme of Leopoldstadt is loss. In the first scene we are introduced to the warmth and achievements of the family. Hermann (David Krumholtz) is a canny businessman who hopes to become a member of the restricted Jockey Club. Having converted, he thinks of himself as both a Jew and a Christian. Gretl (Faye Castelow), his Christian wife, the mother of Jacob, is sitting for a portrait by Gustav Klimt.
Ludwig (Brandon Uranowitz) is a prominent mathematician; his sister Hanna (Colleen Litchfield), a famous concert pianist. Their bourgeois world is filled with expensive items and luxuries, but the oversized Christmas tree indicates the cost the family members pay for assimilation. “We only have a tree for you little Papists,” Grandma Emilia (Betsy Aidem), the matriarch, explains. When Jacob places the star of David atop the tree, the family laughs and replaces it with a different star. “Poor boy, baptised and circumcised in the same week,” Emilia quips. “What can you expect?”
Faye Castelow and Colleen Litchfield. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
The red velvet album, that Emilia adds photos to, is a poignant symbol of the family. The first adult line in the play (after the sound of children bickering) is Wilma (Jenna Augen) asking Grandma Emilia, “Who is this?” They share memories, but for some photographs, Emilia confesses she does not know.
Memories of these family members have been lost; their names not written down fast enough. The album appears again, but in the final scene, after the Holocaust, Rosa (Jenna Augen, double-cast), Wilma’s daughter and a successful New York psychoanalyst, hands her nephew Leo (Arty Froushan), Ludwig’s grandchild who escaped to Great Britain as a child, a family tree that she wrote out for him. What is your first memory? she asks him. “I’m very sorry,” he answers. Any personal trace of his Jewish past has been eradicated. Leo reads the names of the relatives, asking about his new-found family. Rosa documents their deaths: brain tumour, suicide, died in a transport, Verdun, Auschwitz, Dachau, Auschwitz, death march, Auschwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz. The last word in the play is ‘Auschwitz.’ The family faces are irreclaimable. Leo can only have names. Memory and photographs are a lost inheritance.
Some critics have been reading the play as a personal regret by the playwright, who learned in his mid fifities that his four Jewish grandparents died in the Holocaust. His widowed mother escaped to India with her two young sons, married a British citizen and relocated. Tomas Straussler was given his stepfather’s name.
The Straussler family came from the former Czechoslovakia, not Leopoldstadt, the Jewish ghetto in Vienna, nor the prosperous Viennese neighbourhood where the play is set. Why? According to Hermann, to lose Vienna is to lose a world of culture. “This is the Promised Land,” he declares. But the title “Leopoldstadt” can also be read as Leo’s lost city, a vanished world.
Tedra Millan and Seth Numrich. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
The play is at once about the personal loss of each character and the playwright but also about the losses of the Jewish people and by extension their contributions to the world. In the first act (of five) the family is discussing the effect of antisemitism. Freud, whose theory of dreams they trace back to the biblical Joseph in Egypt, has received little recognition for his work. Ernst’s Christian student will likely make professor before him; in 1899, Ernst has to wait for a “Jew slot” to open.
But my slant so far is not quite fair on the play. I left out the beauty of the candle-lit Passover seder; the farcical comedy of the bris (circumcision); the near-tragic confrontation of Hermann and the young Austrian officer who slept with Hermann’s wife and then mocked him in public; and Hermann’s brilliant, selfless gambit to save his son from the camps. As the children recited the four questions in Hebrew, a Passover tradition, members of the audience spontaneously, each in a whisper, sang along. They were claiming the play as their story, only with different details and faces. It was an astonishing moment.
Beautifully detailed costumes are by Brigitte Reiffenstuel; just the right simple basic set design by Richard Hudson allowed many shifts in mood and family circumstances. The delicate light design is by Neil Austin.
Leopoldstadt premiered in January 2020 at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End, crisply directed there and in New York by Patrick Marber. The play took Stoppard a year to write, but it had been incubating for far longer. The British production was shut down in March 2020 by Covid; it resumed in August and won the 2020 Olivier Award for American Airlines‘ Best New Play. For the most part, American actors replaced their British counterparts for the Broadway run.
Caissie Levy and Betsy Aidem . Photo credit: Joan Marcus.