Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Leopoldstadt: Jews in Vienna

A scene from the London production of Leopoldstadt, now on Broadway. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

With a cast of twenty-six actors of all ages playing thirty-seven characters in a family saga – two hours and a quarter without intermission – set in Vienna in 1899, 1900, 1924, 1938 and 1955, Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt is undoubtedly the biggest non-musical play on Broadway. (It opened in London in January 2020, shuttered during the pandemic, and reopened a year and a half later.) It follows the fortunes of a wealthy Jewish family – the neighborhood Leopoldstadt was the center of Jewish life and culture before the Holocaust – most of whom wind up dead in the late thirties and forties. (One survives Auschwitz, and a few lucky ones manage to escape to London or America.) It’s a hefty hunk of a play that Stoppard, a Jew who got away from Europe as a child and was raised in England, has studded with elements of his own Czech family. Leo (Arty Froushan), a writer of comic short stories who was raised by his stepfather, an English journalist (Seth Numrich), and who remembers his early years in the stripped-down family mansion after the Nazis moved in only in the final moments of the play, is Stoppard’s fictionalized version of himself. 

The first act portrays the world of this highly cultivated Viennese Jewish family, which is thriving despite the prejudice that surges up occasionally – as in the difficulty, which has escalated by 1924, of securing tenure at universities, and the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the city’s mayor “Handsome” Karl Lueger. They are secular intellectuals with a pluralistic frame of mind who are more likely to think of themselves as Austrians than Jews, who marry both in and out of the faith and some of whom, like the play’s main character, Hermann Merz (David Krumholtz), head of the family business, have even converted to Christianity. Hermann’s son Jacob (also played by Numrich) was baptized and circumcised in the same week. He and his cousin Pauli fight in the Great War for their country; Pauli is killed and Jacob loses an eye and an arm. Jacob’s mother Gretl (Faye Castelow) poses for Klimt; his mathematician brother-in-law Ludwig (Brandon Uranowitz) is a patient of Freud and a friend of Schnitzler. Until the fourth act, which takes place on Kristallnacht, the play is a rich compendium of episodes chronicling attempts at assimilation; most are successful, or seem to be, but some run up against the invisible wall that divides Jewish life from the existence of the rest of Vienna even when they have convinced themselves it has ceased to function. In 1900, for instance, Hermann visits the home of Fritz (Froushan), a handsome young officer whose comments at a party about Gentile women who marry Jews he found personally offensive because Gretl falls in that category. He demands an apology or, failing that, a duel, and finds Fritz can give  him neither because, according to the officers’ code of honor, Jews are not accounted to be gentlemen and therefore cannot be insulted. By the end of the act Hermann also figures out that Fritz has been sleeping with Gretl.

Leopoldstadt is a fascinating play, typically (for Stoppard) stocked with ideas, and Patrick Marber’s production is sumptuous – beautifully designed and staged and impressively acted. (The scenic design is by Richard Hudson, the costumes are by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and the poetic, evocative lighting is by the peerless Neil Austin.) Among the cast the only ones I recognized were Numrich, who played the boy in War Horse at Lincoln Center, Uranowitz (from An American in Paris) and Krumholtz, whom I’ve admired since he was a teenage actor in movies. But the ensemble is consistently fine, and the actors move fluidly from character to character. The only portrayal I quarreled with was Numrich’s overemphatic one as the cynical Jacob, though he’s excellent – and unrecognizable – as Percy Chamberlain, Leo’s stepfather. Krumholtz’s performance as Hermann is a major piece of work, and it anchors the drama.

I have to report that I wasn’t knocked out by the play, however. Stoppard is a playwright of tremendous gifts who blows hot and cold for me: The Invention of Love, his 1997 play about the English poet A.E. Housman, is one of my favorite plays by a living English writer, and I was charmed by Indian Ink when the Roundabout Theatre produced its New York premiere in 2014, nearly two decades after it was mounted in England. But some of his most touted works feel chilly and remote to me – I gave up on his trilogy The Coast of Utopia after the first part and I hated Rock ‘n’ Roll, both dense historical plays with alluring premises. Leopoldstadt is his most personal piece of writing, however, and I looked eagerly forward to it. But there are too many goddamn characters on the stage of the Longacre; I couldn’t keep their relationships to each other in my head. By the end of act one, the lengthiest act, I thought I’d got them straight, but when, after a short second act, the play advanced to 1924 and there were a new generation of adults and ten new characters on the stage, I was flummoxed. I picked up a copy of the script and read it at my leisure, but I had to keep flipping back to the annotated cast of characters at the front; it was a little like reading War and Peace. It isn’t that I minded the hard work but that the more confused I became the tougher it was to stay emotionally attached. The fourth act, where the family is interrogated by a Nazi official, evicted from their home and ordered to report at the train station the next day, is affecting; how could it not be? And the final act, in 1955, when its only three surviving members are reunited in the family manse, is certainly moving. But the story Edmund de Waal unravels about his own family in The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I read earlier in the year before catching the exhibit of Japanese netsuke, souvenirs of their lives before the Nazis, at the Jewish Museum in New York, had a far more profound effect on me.  Truthfully, I admired Leopoldstadt more than I liked it.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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