At a certain point in “Leopoldstadt,” I stopped trying to figure out who everyone was. Tom Stoppard’s newest play begins in 1899 Vienna, during a Jewish family’s holiday celebration. There are 14 people present, and between the rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue, and the pitter patter of little feet (young actors), I was trying to discern who is married to whom, whose kids those are and what in the world everyone’s name is.
As the play jumps to 1924, the cast expands (the full company numbers 38 people, which is massive for a play). Every character has a name and is related to someone else (and under Patrick Marber’s precise direction, they’re always doing something interesting in the background). But then, when “Leopoldstadt” — which moves at a languid pace — reached its emotionally devastating coda in 1955, I realized that the point wasn’t to know every character. I won’t spoil what occurs in the powerful final scene, but it caused a feeling of loss so palpable that it was like all the oxygen had left the room.
Running two hours and 10 minutes with no intermission, “Leopoldstadt” is a lot of play. It follows one extended Jewish family from 1899 to after the Holocaust. The family’s apartment, designed by Richard Hudson, is at first full and sumptuous, gradually becoming more sparse (the lighting by Neil Austin goes from gold at the top of the show to gray by the end). It’s a handy visual indicator of the passage of time and the devastating losses that occur.
“Leopoldstadt” was inspired by Stoppard’s own late-in-life discovery that he is Jewish. Born in Czechoslovakia, his family fled the country when the Nazis invaded in 1941. They hid all evidence of their Jewish identity; his mother changed her son’s name from Tomáš Sträussler to Tom Stoppard. It wasn’t until the 1990s, after Stoppard had been raised in England, that he discovered his four grandparents had been Jewish and died during the Holocaust.
The Jewish family in “Leopoldstadt” is fictionalized. They are Austrian, not Czech, and the play is named after the Jewish neighborhood in Vienna. It would reduce the complexity of “Leopoldstadt” to call it a family drama. Instead “Leopoldstadt” is massive in scope, tackling themes such as the cost of assimilation and how today’s casual prejudice is tomorrow’s genocide. In one pivotal moment, Ludwig (a mathematician played by Brandon Uranowitz) argues with his brother-in-law Hermann (David Krumholtz). Hermann, who married a Christian woman, believes that the Jews have successfully assimilated into Austrian society and that prejudice is a thing of the past. Ludwig sees the current condition of Jews in Austria as conditional and precarious, and talks about a homeland for the Jews. It’s arguably the most didactic scene, and perhaps goes on too long. Yet in the skilled ensemble, Krumholtz and Uranowitz are standouts. Krumholtz plays Hermann as haughty and practical, yet sensitive — when he is dejected, you can see the cracks in his carefully polished veneer. Uranowitz plays two roles: Ludwig and his descendent, Nathan. Uranowitz gives both characters an air of anxiousness and eccentricity, but while Ludwig is lighter in touch and funnier, Nathan is more tortured.
While “Leopoldstadt” is epic, it is also quietly affecting, taking time to focus on the minutiae of these characters’ daily lives. In one moment, as Grandma Emilia (Betsy Aidem) is flipping through a family album with her grandchildren, they ask who the different people are and she doesn’t remember: “Here’s a couple waving goodbye from the train, but who are they? No idea. That’s why they’re waving goodbye.” The audience laughs at this part, before Aidem delivers the kicker: “It’s like a second death, to lose your name in a family album.” Oof.
At times, “Leopoldstadt” moves so quickly you don’t have time to invest in one person before the narrative fast-forwards. There are alleyways of storytelling that Stoppard could have ventured off to, each filled with its own narrative promise — such as a character who appears in two scenes and is then mentioned in passing the rest of the play, who kills himself because he is forced to hide his Jewish identity.
But perhaps that is the point, that the audience is getting only snapshots of full lives, which intersected with other lives, who also had their own story. And they’re stories we won’t ever hear the full version of, because they have been lost to memory and history. That’s what makes “Leopoldstadt” resonate beyond being about one family. It’s about how, in a world filled with people being displaced and then forced to assimilate, it’s easy for lineage, language and heritage to become lost. In “Leopoldstadt,” remembering is an active choice, and the play acts as encouragement: Ask about the nameless people in your family photographs, before their names are lost forever.
“Leopoldstadt” opened at the Longacre Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022.
Review Photo: Joan Marcus.
Creative: Written by Tom Stoppard; Original music by Adam Cork; Directed by Patrick Marber; Scenic design by Richard Hudson; Costume design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel; Lighting design by Neil Austin; Sound design by Adam Cork; Video design by Isaac Madge;
Movement by Emily Jane Boyle.
Producers: Sonia Friedman Productions, Roy Furman and Lorne Michaels.
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, Chris Stevens, Sara Topham, Brandon Uranowitz, Dylan S. Wallach, Reese Bogin, Max Ryan Burach, Calvin James Davis, Michael Deaner, Romy Fay, Pearl Scarlett Gold, Jaxon Cain Grundleger, Wesley Holloway, Ava Michele Hyl, Joshua Satine, Aaron Shuf and Drew Ryan Squire.