Theater

An Immense Cast Achieves Aching Intimacy in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstadt’

The playwright once again threads emotion and heart through complex layers of history and legacy.

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A new Tom Stoppard play inevitably arrives with a mantle of prestige, announcing itself as the succès d’estime of the season by nature of its being by Stoppard. Leopoldstadt (named after the Jewish quarter of Vienna) is no exception: It’s an Olivier Award–winning play by the most Best-Play-Tony-winning playwright in history, the man whose dramas have included The Coast of Utopia, a nine-hour trilogy set in 19th-century Russia, and Arcadia, a densely worded dissertation on chaos vs. order. (Both were extraordinary.) The already minimal danger that Leopoldstadt might be one of those Masterpiece Theatre-come-to-life experiences that are a little too good for you dissolves as the play becomes more complex and haunting and the production less high-pitched. What starts out as a chirpy gathering develops more gravitas in the face of the increasingly unavoidable creeping terror of Nazism. The years sweep by, and though it’s not always easy to figure out which character is related to whom, the play definitely gets more meaningful as things get grimmer.

The intermissionless, 130-minute Vienna-set drama spans 1899 to 1955, as it follows the Merzes, an extended family of Austro-Hungarian Jewish aesthetes, through Christmas (you heard me), debates, dalliances, horror, and remembrances. An immense cast—some doubling up on roles—emerges from a stately tableau, an immobile, living family portrait, to banter about all sorts of things, including various community issues. Does assimilation mean shedding your identity? Are Jews “the perpetual outsider”? Some characters feel that they can blend right into high society while overcoming the outsider stigma, and it’s heartbreaking to realize how wrong they are.

 

By the time we’re in 1938 and the Nazis show up on Kristallnacht, the restless pace slows and the heart nearly stops.

 

Despite the sometimes topical chatter, the first scene is breathless and pretty festive. But what follows has the characters, and their offspring, acting out their personal dramas amid rising waves of anti-Semitism that make it clear the initial tableau might ultimately be far less populated. The play aims to be simultaneously sprawling and intimate, and though Patrick Marber’s direction encourages the cast to play to the balcony, the vast majority of the actors manage to carve out a deft characterization (or two). David Krumholtz is strong as Hermann, the blustery businessman who believes he’s shrewd to have converted from Judaism to Catholicism, but who seems more and more delusional. Betsy Aidem is hilarious as his wry mother, who notices her grandson putting a Star of David on the Christmas tree and deadpans, “Poor boy. Baptized and circumcised in the same week. What can you expect?” I’ll withhold kudos, though, for Seth Numrich, who’s way too hammy as the Star of David boy who’s all grown up and, by 1924, a sardonic WWI vet who’s lost an eye and an arm. 

By the time we’re in 1938 and the Nazis show up on Kristallnacht, the restless pace slows and the heart nearly stops. The scene in which a leering Nazi informs everyone in the house that they must start packing takes Leopoldstadt from a vivified family album to something that creeps under the skin. 

Richard Hudson’s scenic design involves lavish furniture arrangements, which, as the play goes on, become thinner, until only a piano, a bench, and two chairs remain. The stinging final scene has three-time Tony nominee Brandon Uranowitz deserving a fourth nomination for his bristling performance as Nathan, an Auschwitz survivor who’s become the keeper of the family’s history. Stoppard’s suggestion that we all run the risk of being “accidents of history”—what Nathan calls an unenlightened younger character, based on Stoppard himself—rings out from his own experience. Late in life, the playwright found out that he is fully Jewish, which is why his family fled Czechoslovakia—to escape the Nazis. His moving—as in both kinetic and touching—insistence that we remember the people who were forced to move gives their generation immortality.  

Leopoldstadt
Longacre Theatre

220 West 48th St

Michael Musto has written for the Voice since 1984, best known for his outspoken column “La Dolce Musto.” He has penned four books, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.

 

 

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