Leopoldstadt (Longacre Theatre, booking to Jan. 29, 2023) is quite literally a memory play. On Richard Hudson’s graceful, beautifully designed Broadway stage is one room of a grand Viennese apartment and within that room the story of two intermarried Jewish families—the Merz-Jakoboviczes—told in fragments, some joyous, many painful.
Sir Tom Stoppard’s powerful and beautifully written play—its name derived from the name of Vienna’s historic Jewish quarter—is a reclamation of what has been variously extinguished, murdered, and lost in a time span of 56 years from 1899 to 1955. The genius of Patrick Marber’s direction, aided by Hudson’s design and Neil Austin’s lighting, is that the play flickers ethereally before us. It feels as if we are watching something out of our own reach of time—like old pieces of film found in a box and reanimated, ghosts fluttering in motion before us.
The actors stand far from us, mid-stage. This sense of literal distance makes everything so much more poignant in Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical play, which is about identity and history, about losing and refinding parts of ourselves, and necessarily confronting the truth of love, family, and horror. In the widest sense, the play asks what it means to be Jewish, Stoppard playfully laying out his complex intent at the beginning with the children in 1899 putting the Star of David atop a Christmas tree.
Stoppard, like one of the characters in the play, discovered his own Jewish roots later in life, and we see a similar personal earthquake affect one of the characters here, just as we see two recurring themes of Stoppard’s plays—art and mathematics—play a central role in the eddying currents of history around the family. It is hard to say what happens in the play without spoiling swathes of plot. On the screen at the front of the stage are flickering images from the years the play is concerned with, and evolving family trees.
Right from the beginning of the play there is talk of Jewish children outgrowing old-fashioned relatives, of the first conceptions of a separate Jewish state (in Madagascar). Ernst (Aaron Neil) and Gretl (Faye Castelow) are both Gentile, married to Wilma (Jenna Augen) and Hermann (David Krumholtz), respectively. A portrait of Gretl, and its whereabouts, becomes the central motif of the play—its outline is left on the back wall.
The bustle of a family Christmas is infectious, while Hanna, Ludwig (Brandon Uranowitz) and Wilma’s sister, considers a romance with a Viennese officer called Fritz (Arty Froushan). Grandma Emilia (Betsy Aidem) licks the cream spoon, as talk whirls of Vienna being the cultural capital of the new century—and Jews being the multi-disciplinary heartbeat of that cultural life. There is an excitement of newness and possibility.
There is also the heavy imprint of time’s passing, and one of the central themes of the play. Emilia notes of faces in a scrapbook: “First, there’s no need to write who they are, because everyone knows that’s great-aunt Sophia or cousin Rudi, and then only some of us know, and already we’re asking, ‘Who’s that with Gertrude?’ and ‘I don’t remember this man with the little dog,’ and you don’t realize how fast they’re disappearing from being remembered.’”
Wilma, her daughter’s husband’s sister, agrees. “It’s still an amazing thing to me, to know the faces of the dead! I can remember Grandpa Jakobovicz’s tobacco-stained whiskers, but his wife died giving birth to Poppa before there were photographs, so now no one knows what she looked like any more than if she’d been some kind of rumor.”
“Here’s a couple waving goodbye from the train, but who are they?” Emilia says. “No idea. That’s why they’re waving goodbye. It’s like a second death, to lose your name in a family album.”
This small exchange encapsulates the ambition of the play. Even in the distant past, which today family members can agonize about losing touch with, people were agonizing about exactly the same. Leopoldstadt, as it threads a tapestry of grand themes around philosophy, violence, anti-Semitism, and assimilation (one of the lead early characters becomes a Catholic to avoid people thinking he is Jewish), is also a play about family, and about discovering and stating clearly who people were and what happened to them. It is an investigation as well as a treatise, a full-blooded drama, as well as a meditation on history, hatred, identity, survival, and place—all themes with a resonance today.
The second act takes place only a year later, with romance and the first outbursts of ugly anti-Semitism that will bloom most viciously with the rise of Nazism in over two decades’ time, and concludes with an emotional, elegiac Seder.
From here time slips and careens. In 1924, we see the effects of the war on some of the now-adult children we saw in 1900. A bris is about to take place, a humorous sequence of moments played for slapstick laughs. Nationalism is on the rise, but the family, now wealthy, feels safe and just as close and bonded as they did twenty-plus years before.
In 1938, the room is bare, family members young and old are lit by candlelight and swathed in shawls. Illness and decrepitude haunt the older members we have seen as so young and vibrant just moments before. We, like the family, hear horrible screaming and the smashing of glass outside. And then there is a knock at the door. The Nazis have arrived. Kristallnacht.
A shocking, chilling scene unfolds in the family apartment. It is not gratuitous, but it will leave you winded, and that dread is compounded by the emotional force of what Stoppard oversees in the play’s masterful final sequences in 1955. It is, again, pretty impossible to write about without spoiling the play—and this is a play that demands to be seen, and so this critic will not—but three actors, Brandon Uranowitz (magnificent throughout the play), Jenna Augen, and Arty Froushan, are left on stage to stitch together not only family mysteries but even basic identity as Froushan comes to understand who he is.
Here, Stoppard writes with moving power about finding out the truth about oneself while understanding why that truth was obscured for so long. We see how and why people may run from themselves and their identity, but never so far that one is ever completely out of sight of where one came from.
The play does not condemn the actions that people took in response to the horror that Nazism brought upon them. Even in 1955, 1945 barely a decade away, we see the rush to forget, sanitize, recustomize even, the ugliness of Nazism in Austria, and how expendable Jewish lives and feelings were even after all they had endured (if they had indeed survived).
Leopoldstadt is a generous play, and it is mischievous too—willing to interrogate totems of history and identity, as well as poke fun at them. A piece of comic familial ingenuity forms one of the play’s twists.
At the end of the play there is a raw recitation of something very specific. The play has been building to this moment, because on stage in the characters we have seen, and in the images of family trees and historical photographs, the past has seemed fleeting, its faces grainy and gone in a second.
What happens, what is said, the tableau we see before us, in the last seconds of Leopoldstadt not only speaks to the urgent refrain of “Never forget” but to something more specific. We should never forget these people, these very specific people, right in front of us, and in our own histories—the fluttering ghosts who not only died but also lived.