Broadway Review: LEOPOLDSTADT (Longacre Theatre)

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by Harvey Perr on October 17, 2022

in Theater-New York

AN EPIC JOURNEY TO HEAVEN AND HELL

It is 1899 in Vienna, Christmas Eve to be exact, and two families, elegant and refined, are gathered together in what might be called joyous solemnity to celebrate the holiday. On Richard Hudson’s luminously dark set, candlelit to perfection by Neil Austin, they are like a painting stirred to life, in a faded world that brings to mind a less gaudy version of the opening scenes of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. These are Jewish families, but the only indication that this much is true is that the Star of David sits high on the Christmas tree, before it is replaced by a conventional star. The idle chatter in which they engage is more evocative of the moment in history than in revelation of character, throwing names like Brahms and Mahler and Freud and Klimt and Herzl around to suggest the intellectual firmament on which these people live. They are less interested in their Jewishness than in their desire to be assimilated into a richer cultural society, and, who would blame them, or even imagine that one day, they may regret the decision to stay aloof from their Jewish roots?

The Broadway Company of Leopoldstadt
Brandon Uranowitz (Ludwig), Caissie Levy (Eva), Faye Castelow (Gretl), David Krumholtz (Hermann)

And this is how Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt introduces itself. It is the play many of Stoppard’s admirers had hoped he might one day write in recognition of his own Jewishness, which he himself did not discover until very late in his lifetime. And, of course, being Stoppard, he still manages to surprise us. The chatter referred to is not interested in witty wordplay and the kind of verbal high jinks one associates with a Stoppard play. Characters emerge fitfully because Stoppard seems less interested in them as individuals than as a family unit and it is a family that we will follow through the five periods that constitute the play. It might even be said that, for at least two thirds of the play, we are treading water through history, relying more on the designers to do the work Stoppard often discursively and purposely ignores, almost as if he is coming to grips, before us, with truths he has been as blind to as the “family” has been blind to its own changes.

The Broadway Company of Leopoldstadt
Joshua Satine (Young Jacob)

The 1924 section gives us some sense of the post-war era of elation and joy before the gravity of economic downfall sets in and takes place during an off-stage bris while the Charleston is being danced onstage and allows for a kind of humor – that never really develops into farce – in which a visitor is mistaken for a mohel.

Caissie Levy (Eva) and Betsy Aidem (Grandma Emilia)

It could be argued that an intermission has been avoided in fear that not enough has happened to lay claim to emotional engagement on the part of the audience. There has been too much building a road whose completion is unsure, too much theatrical showing off and not enough old-fashioned drama. But again, Stoppard surprises us. Preparation has taken its time, but it has never really moved at what one might call a snail’s pace, thanks primarily to the intelligence of Patrick Marber’s skillful direction.

The Broadway Company of Leopoldstadt
Japhet Balaban (Otto) and Eden Epstein (Hermine)

And then suddenly, it is 1938, the Anschluss has come, the Nazis are knocking at the door, and the “family” is forced to confront their failure to recognize, as Jews, their fate. And the play finally emerges in its full force. Further, we are brought into 1955, and the character of Tom Stoppard – here called Leo Chamberlain – makes a full-blooded appearance and the forceful scene that emerges brings the play into laser focus and fully grabs not only our attention but our imagination and, better still, our shared memory of the Holocaust. In its final moments, it is impossible not to be moved and to realize that, ultimately, Stoppard has created the authentic masterpiece we had expected and which, briefly, we were afraid he might not achieve.

Reese Bogin (Mimi), Sara Topham (Sally), and Ava Michele Hyl (Bella)
Eden Epstein (Hermine) and Calvin James Davis (Heini)

There are too many actors, all of them superb, to name, but Daniel Krumholtz, Faye Castelow, Brandon Uranowitz, and Arty Froushan make particularly vivid impressions. And the production itself is solid.

Brandon Uranowitz (Nathan) and Arty Froushan (Leo)

Still, this is one work that really belongs to its author, Tom Stoppard. It may not be in the pantheon of his greatest work, but it is his most personal play since Rock’n’Roll, and the final impression, upon leaving the theater, is of having taken an epic journey to Heaven and Hell.

Corey Brill (Civilian) and Anthony Rosenthal (Young Nathan)

photos by Joan Marcus (2022)

LEOPOLDSTADT
The Longacre Theatre220 W. 48th Street, between Broadway and 8th Ave
limited engagement
for tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge or Leopoldstadt Play

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