If Leopoldstadt is the last play Tom Stoppard writes, it’s a fitting coda to an illustrious career. At Broadway’s Longacre Theatre, this mammoth historical drama traces the fortunes of two intermarried Jewish families through four generations.
Patrick Marber’s crisp staging keeps the stories churning on a set by Richard Hudson that gleams with honeyed smugness under Neil Austin’s lighting. It’s an ambitious night of theater, and it works.
The play starts in a Viennese drawing room in 1899, with Hermann Merz (David Krumholtz) and his Catholic wife Gretl (Faye Castelow) surrounded by their many siblings and children. Their squabbling over politics, religion and mathematics is interrupted by a visit from an outsider who stirs up nationalist sentiment with words that will have devastating ramifications.
Leopoldstadt is more linear than some of Stoppard’s previous work but still retains the verbal pyrotechnics that have made his name synonymous with intellectual drama. It’s also more personal, based as it is on the fact that Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 to Jewish parents and escaped the Holocaust when he was 8. He saw much of his family perish in the camps. Those events inform every scene of this epic, formatively brilliant work.
The play is populated with characters from all walks of life. Stoppard has a habit of creating well-rounded and flawed individuals that make their stories relatable. The cast is impressive, and they all have a unique story to tell.
Some actors portray multiple characters. For example, they may appear at the end of the play as a grandchild or great-grandchild of the character they played in the beginning.
This epic family drama is about the fight to maintain tradition and decide how much of it we should hold on to in hostile, scary times. The cast consists of 38 actors of all ages and worldviews. They shared with New York Theatre Guide their own family histories and why everyone should see Leopoldstadt. This is one of Tom Stoppard’s last works, and it’s an important and moving drama that demands to be seen.
Leopoldstadt is not a play to be taken lightly. It is complex and dense, with plenty of digressions ranging from mathematics to Zionism to modern art to the Holocaust.
It begins in a grand Viennese drawing room in 1899, where a Jewish family gathers to celebrate the holidays. Hermann Merz, a factory owner, and his Catholic wife Gretl have mixed-up children who blur the lines of Jew, gentile and Austrian — they even top their Christmas tree with a Star of David.
Though it isn’t autobiographical, Stoppard clearly loves these characters and fears for them at every turn – which adds to the dramatic impact of the show. The opulent set is by Tony Award winner Richard Hudson, with costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel and lighting by three-time Oscar nominee Neil Austin (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia). Broadway favorites Caissie Levy and Brandon Uranowitz also star in the show.
In a departure from the cerebral games-d’esprit that have become his trademark, Stoppard keeps Leopoldstadt on a strictly linear track. While it does discuss the Uncertainty Principle, Fermat’s Last Theorem and various aspects of 20th century history, it’s also a deeply personal family drama.
Although the play can be expository and muddled, a sense of catharsis is delivered in the final act. The actors, including Jesse Aaronson* (The Play That Goes Wrong off-Broadway), Jenna Augen, Corey Brill and Eden Epstein, deliver in spades.
Richard Hudson’s gilded drawing room set provides the perfect frame for the family’s story, and Neil Austin’s lighting design is exquisite. Leopoldstadt is a masterful mix of language and cleverness, history and heartache. It is a night of theatre that shouldn’t be missed.
Considering how much time we spend in movies and books and history classes, it can be easy to overestimate our grasp of the Holocaust. Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s newest play (and possibly final) about Jewish loss and the consequences of complacency, reminds us how powerful this tragedy is, and how much we need to remember.
Spanning multiple generations and anchored by the rich characterizations of Hermann Merz and his wife Gretl, along with their children and siblings-by-marriage, Leopoldstadt is one of Stoppard’s most ambitious efforts. Though it sometimes feels slow and expository, with plenty of old Stoppardian wordplay and banter about high-level mathematics, this is a gut wrenching piece about identity, family, and legacy. It also makes for a stunning Broadway production, in the hands of director Patrick Marber.