Leopoldstadt Review. Tom Stoppard on the Jews of Vienna

“Leopoldstadt,” a play by Tom Stoppard inspired by the death of his own extended family in the Holocaust, begins with a family tree projected onto the scrim of the stage at Broadway’s Longacre Theater. It diagrams the four generations the play will present in a single grand apartment in Vienna over fifty-six years, starting on Christmas Day, 1899 with a dozen busy members of the prosperous and largely assimilated family.

The diagram flashes by quickly… too quickly, since it’s not easy to keep track of each individual family member in that first scene and in most of the four that follow, set in 1900, 1924, 1938 and 1955. But that feels like much the point of having a huge cast. “Leopoldstadt” – bustling with characters, bristling with debate, packed full of facts —   is less a collection of distinct portraits or plot points than a rich tapestry of twentieth century Jewish life, and then the frayed threads of Jewish loss.

As in his previous work, Stoppard’s nineteenth play on Broadway offers dialogue that doubles as intellectual and political discourse. The usual effect of his approach is to make his scripts as rewarding to read on the page as to see acted out on the stage (if not more so.)   But “Leopoldstadt”  has little of Stoppard’s trademark cleverness in wordplay and none of his playfulness in structure.  It is a straightforward if sprawling epic about a dark history that also winds up both intimate and ultimately moving. It’s hard not to see it as the 85-year-old playwright’s attempt at a personal reckoning.

Above and top: 1899

Below: Tedra Millan (Nellie) and Seth Numrich (Percy), 1938

The title of the play is the name of the neighborhood in Vienna that was historically the center of the Jewish community of Austria.  But the family to whom we are introduced at the end of 1899 – the Merzes, and their in-laws, the Jakoboviczes– moved to a more elegant neighborhood, near Vienna’s Ringstrasse.
Of the three couples we see with their children during this Christmas celebration, only Ludwig Jakobovicz and his wife Eva (Brandon Uranowitz and Caissie Levy) are both Jewish. Eva’s brother Hermann Merz (David Krumholtz) is married to Gretyl, a gentile (Faye Castelow) and has himself converted to Catholicism. Ludwig’s sister Wilma (Jenna Augen) is married to Ernst, also a gentile (Aaron Neil.)

Left: Brandon Uranowitz (Ludwig) and Caissie Levy (Eva)
Middle: Faye Castelow (Gretl) and David Krumholtz (Hermann)
Jenna Augen (Wilma) and Aaron Neil (Ernst)

They are all well-to-do professionals and business people. The household includes three servants. Beneath a chandelier, their children are decorating a Christmas tree; Young Jacob, Hermann and Gretyl’s son (Joshua Satine), mistakenly puts a Star of David atop the tree. Meanwhile, the adults chat about Sigmund Freud (who is Ludwig’s doctor) and the painter Gustav Klimt (who’s doing Gretl’s portratit) and the playwright Arthur Schnitzler (who gave a private copy of his latest unpublished play to his friend Hermann.)

Brandon Uranowitz and David Krumholtz

Eventually two of the characters come into particular focus: Hermann, a successful textile manufacturer, and his brother-in-law Ludwig, a professor of mathematics. (their portrayals by Krumholtz and Uranowitz stand out in a universally competent cast.)  It is primarily through their conversation that we learn both of the evolving treatment of Jews in Austria, and the differing attitudes of Jewish Austrians towards such issues as assimilation and the growing movement to find a Jewish homeland. (Not coincidentally, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, was an Austrian Jew.)

To Hermann, antisemitism is largely (but not entirely) a thing of the past; Jews now not only partake of the life and culture of Austria; they’re central to it. “This is the Promised Land, and not because it’s some place on a map where my ancestors came from. Ludwig doesn’t see it that way

Watch this exchange between Hermann and Ludwig.

The second of the five acts of the play takes place the following year, and is largely taken up with the complicated story of Hermann’s cuckolding and subsequent humiliation, of which I’ll say only  that its purpose seems to be to show up as wishful thinking Hermann’s assumption that Jews were increasingly accepted in Austria, no matter how cultured, no matter whether officially converted. The act ends with the extended family participating in a traditional seder, complete with Hebrew prayers, in which even Ernst wears a yarmulke, although that doesn’t stop Grandma Emilia (Hermann and Eva’s mother, portrayed by Betsy Aidem),  from interrupting the service to make what the younger generation sees as a dig: “For the benefit of the Papists, we now drink the first cup of wine.”
“Ernst is Protestant, Emilia,” his wife Wilma corrects her, not for the first time.

Another Jewish ritual, punctuated by some more humor, follows in the next act, in 1924 — a bris, and a little bit of slapstick– when family members mistake Otto, a cigar-smoking banker come to have Hermann sign some business papers, for the mohel come to circumcise the newborn Nathan. It’s not long after the audience laughter dies down that Otto and Hermann get into a professional discussion about economic projections, which turns into a conversation about politics. “Marxism and nationalism are fighting for the soul of the masses,” Otto observes. “The class war turns people against each other but nationalism binds them together. Last year, a quarter of a million Austrians voted for the German Nationals and gave us enough seats to make us the third party.” 

“You’ve joined the Greater German People’s Party?!”
“A union of German speakers is the logical thing.” 

An Austrian banker is casually upfront with a Jewish client about joining an antisemitic political party that eventually merged with the Nazis.  By 1924, the march of history was already starting to trample the Jews. 

The terror of November, 1938 – the day of Kristallnacht – is effectively rendered in many ways, although the credit overall must go to director Patrick Marber:  Adam Cork’s sound design, Richard Hudson’s set, which is stripped of elegant furnishings, and Neil Austin’s lighting of its warm color;  Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes have turned drab. Many of the characters have deteriorated both mentally and physically, in variously blunt or subtle ways. And this is before the menace of a visit from a man who insists on being called Herr Doktor. 

Up until the final act, all the characters in “Leopoldstadt” are intentionally fictional, not meant to correlate directly to Stoppard’s family. But in 1955, there are only three characters on stage, and one of them is self-evidently a stand-in for the playwright himself. 

With Stoppard’s publication of a personal essay two decades ago, and then the publicity surrounding this play, which debuted in London in 2020, Stoppard’s extraordinary personal story has become more widely known: He was born Tomas Straussler in a small town in Czechoslovakia in 1937 to Jewish parents, who after the Nazis invaded, escaped to Singapore, but were forced to leave there after the Japanese invaded. His father was killed when his ship was bombed, and his mother sailed with her two children to India; now a widow, she met  British army major Kenneth Stoppard there, who married her, brought her and her family to England, and gave nine-year-old Tomas his name and his nationality. Stoppard claims that his mother was always vague about their background, and that he did not realize that he was Jewish – that all four of his grandparents were killed in Nazi death camps – until he was told of this by a cousin in 1993, when he was in his fifties, long after he had become a celebrated writer.

“Leopoldstadt” streamlines this story. The character is originally named Leopold Rosenbaum (could the title of the play also refer to the original name of the Stoppard stand-in?) As a child he was renamed Leonard Chamberlain (Arty Froushan.) His birth father was killed by Austrians in 1934 for his leftist politics; his stepfather, a British newspaper reporter named Percy (Seth Numrich) assigned to cover Austria, married his widowed mother Nellie (Tedra Millan), thus saving mother and child. Leonard is a very British writer of short funny books, who is back in the grand old home in Vienna, long neglected, because he was on a book tour in the city, and his cousin Rosa realized who he was. Rosa (Augen again), a New Yorker who had emigrated decades earlier, was back in Vienna to recover the Klimt portrait of Gertl that the Nazis had stolen. Nathan (Uranowitz again) — whom we first met on the day of his bris — is one of the few members of the family who neither emigrated nor escaped, but nevertheless survived.

Leonard is depicted as callow and glib, and Rosa calls him on it: “No one is born eight years old. Leonard Chamberlain’s life is Leo Rosenbaum’s life continued. His family is your family. But you live as if without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you.”

But then, back in that grand Viennese apartment off the Ringstrasse where he hung out as a child with his large extended family, he begins to remember. If Stoppard’s self-portrait is a harsh one, his urge to remember, and remind us, is a generous act of theater.

The Seder, 1900
Eden Epstein (Hermine) and Calvin James Davis (Heini), 1938
Nathan (Brandon Uranowitz) and Leonard/Leopold (Arty Frushan), 1955

at Broadway’s Longacre Theater
Tickets: $59-$368 (lottery: $47)
Running time: About two hours and 15 minutes with no intermission
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Patrick Marber
Scenic design by Richard Hudson, costume design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, lighting design by Neil Austin, sound and original music by Adam Cork,video design by Isaac Madge, and movement by Emily Jane Boyle. 
Cast: Jesse Aaronson, Betsy Aidem, Jenna Augen, Japhet Balaban, Corey Brill, Daniel Cantor, Faye Castelow, Erica Dasher, Eden Epstein, Gina Ferrall, Arty Froushan, Charlotte Graham, Matt Harrington, Jacqueline Jarrold, Sarah Killough, David Krumholtz, Caissie Levy, Colleen Litchfield*, Tedra Millan, Aaron Neil, Seth Numrich, Anthony Rosenthal, Christopher James Stevens, Sara Topham, Brandon Uranowitz, Dylan S. Wallach, Reese Bogin, Max Ryan Burach, Michael Deaner, Romy Fay, Pearl Scarlett Gold, Jaxon Cain Grundleger, Wesley Holloway, Ava Michele Hyl, Joshua Satine, Aaron Shuf, and Drew Squire.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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