Leopoldstadt which is rumored to be 85-year-old Tom Stoppard’s last play is an actual epic covering four generations (from 1899 – 1955) in two extended Viennese Jewish families. It has the depth and the sweep of a three-volume novel or a high profile television mini-series. Dealing with the spread of anti-Semitism which led to the Holocaust and the upper middle-class bourgeois Jewish families that closed their eyes to the creeping menace, this is an audacious story that no one has yet told on stage. In Patrick Marber’s London transfer, the final scene which takes place ten years after the war when it is revealed how many members died in concentration camps is absolutely chilling.
Unlike most of Stoppard’s plays, this one is completely realistic with no satire anywhere. The characters are engrossing and involving. However, with 32 personages spread over six decades, it is at times difficult to recall how they are all related to each other as the decades pass and new members of the family appear as well as others grow older. A family tree in the program would definitely have helped. Nevertheless, this is a major play by a major playwright still writing at the height of his powers at age 83. Many of the actors play more than one character as the generations pass and except where they are playing ancestors of their earlier roles where their resemblance is intended, they are entirely unrecognizable as the previous characters they played.
The New York tranfer includes three actors from the London production (Faye Castelow, Aaron Neil and Jenna Augen) as well as three bona fide NY stage stars (Betsy Aidem, Caissie Levy and Brandon Uranowitz.) (Sixteen members of the cast are making their Broadway debuts, including the three London holdovers.) The British production staff has created a remarkable environment for this play in five acts and covering 56 years: Richard Hudson’s sets (along with Isaac Madge’s projection designs) beautifully show the ravages of time to the family apartment off Vienna’s Ringstrasse as the years go by. The large number of costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel attractively depicts the changing styles over the first half of the twentieth century as well as the family when they are down on their luck. Neil Austin’s lighting makes atmospheric use of the dining room/sitting room of the Merz family and their descendants. Adam Cork’s spot-on sound design and original music complements the other design elements. Campbell Young Associates are responsible for the hair, wig and makeup design which makes it possible for the actors to cover so much time and history.
Of the play’s five acts, four of them are set during Jewish holidays or historic events. In 1899, the two extended families (the Merzes and the Jakobovizes) meet for a Christmas celebration which Jewish Grandmother Emilia resents. The two upper middle class families have become very assimilated and know all the right people from Sigmund Freud to Arthur Schnitzler to Gustav Mahler and earlier Johannes Brahms. Son Hermann who runs the family’s textile business has married the gentile Gretl and been baptized in order to be accepted by his aristocratic friends. His sister Eva is married to mathematician/professor Ludwig. Ludwig’s sister Wilma is married to Ernst, a gentile doctor. Their sister Hanna, a talented pianist, is as yet unmarried. They discuss the latest ideas from Herzl’s Zionism to Freud’s interpretation of dreams to the modern paintings of Gustav Klimt. Hermann’s nephew Pauli hopes to be accepted into the military even though his Judaism may stand in the way in the anti-Semitic Austrian army.
A year later Gretl is ending an affair with Fritz, an anti-Semitic cavalry officer, once the boyfriend of Hanna, her brother-in-law’s sister’s boyfriend. Her husband Hermann thinks he is accepted as an equal by his non-Jewish friends but is strongly disabused of that notion. The family gathers for a Passover Seder while Hermann mourns his wife’s infidelity which he has come to know. In 1924 during a bris for Wilma and Ernst’s grandchild Nathan, Hermann arranges to transfer the family business to his and Gretl’s son Jacob who has been declared a Christian and the son of Fritz who has been paid off – though he was born years before the affair. Although the effects of World War I are apparent (Pauli has been killed and Jacob has lost an arm and an eye, prices are up and money is tight,) the family does not think it has anything to worry about in the current climate in Vienna. They speak of the rise of Marxism, Communism and Bolshevism, as Nellie makes a red flag for a demonstration.
The penultimate act takes place on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938. Warned by Percy Chamberlain, the British journalist engaged to Nellie (Eva and Ludwig’s daughter and the mother of Leo, her son by her late husband Aaron,) that it is time to get out of Austria as soon as they can, the family claims they cannot leave the business, the apartment and their life in Vienna. With that, there is a knock on the door and they are ordered to give up the apartment by noon the next day. The only place they are welcome is the original Jewish ghetto of Leopoldstadt that their ancestors were able to abandon years ago.
The final act takes place in the nearly empty apartment in 1955, ten years after the war. Only three members of the family are left: 62-year-old Rosa, daughter of Wilma and Ernst, who had moved to New York City to be an analyst years before the war, the sarcastic and bitter 31-year-old mathematician Nathan who survived Auschwitz, and 24-year-old writer Leo, who grew up in England as the adopted son of Percy Chamberlain, in total ignorance of his Jewish heritage or his previous name. Similar to how Stoppard first discovered his Jewish family roots in 1993 when was 56. Leo is made aware of his family’s history and must confront what happened to his relatives. The Klimt portrait of Aunt Gretl stolen from the family in 1938 has resurfaced and Rosa vows to have it returned to them.
Inspired by episodes in Stoppard’s own family history, the play feels immediate, well-thought-out, and though it is fictional, entirely believable. His message seems to be that the family’s attempt at assimilation as well as their blindness to the anti-Semitism all around them leads to their downfall. The entire cast is too numerous to mention, but several characters who appear in most of the scenes, ageing as time passes, are standouts: David Krumholtz’s forgiving Hermann who is disabused of the idea that he had been Christianized; Faye Castelow as the gentile Gretl who becomes more Jewish than her relatives; Aaron Neil’s Ernst, the voice of political reason; Jenna Augen as the Americanized Rosa who speaks her mind and is left at the end to tell the story.
Some actors appear as two characters, descendants of earlier generations: Brandon Uranowitz as both the eccentric Professor Ludwig and Nathan, his great grandnephew also a famed mathematician but now angry after his Holocaust experiences; Arty Froushan as the arrogant and supercilious gentile officer Fritz and later Leo, the Anglicized and adopted son who is ignorant of his history; Seth Numrich as the resentful and sullen Jacob injured in W.W. I and later as the elegant English journalist Percy Chamberlain who cannot understand the family’s inertia. In the brief role of the matriarch, Betsy Aidem, last seen in a similar role in last season’s award winning, Prayers for the French Republic, is feisty and wry as Grandma Emilia whose apartment is the one depicted on stage.
Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt is a powerful achievement, a history of our time as well as a cautionary tale. In depicting Jewish society in Vienna from 1899 – 1955, it also reveals a way of life and a culture rarely seen on our stage. Patrick Marber’s superb production keeps the story progressing at just the right tempo both to follow the plot as well as reflect family life as it is really lived. There is not a weak link among the 36 actors in which all of the children’s roles are double cast. The excellent design team puts four generations of Vienna on the stage of Broadway’s Longacre Theatre.
Leopoldstadt (extended through July 2, 2023)
Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.leopoldstadtplay.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes without an intermission