Directed by Patrick Marber
Longacre Theatre (220 W 28th St, NYC).
By Lauren Yarger
One family's journey of love and endurance plays out against the backdrop of the Holocaust in what playwright Tom Stoppard says will be his last play, Leopoldstadt.
The work was inspired by some of Stoppard's family's experience, where Jewish roots were long again forgotten or buried firmly under ground.
Set in Vienna, Leopoldstadt takes its title from the city's Jewish quarter. Stoppard stakes us on a more than half-century journey with the Merz and Jacobovicz families beginning in 1899 and ending in 1955. The family's extended genealogy tree is shown a few times thanks to Scenic, Lighting and Video Designers Neil Austin, Richard Hudson and Isaac Madge respectively (though given the complex story telling and huge cast of 38 a pull-out copy of it in the program might be helpful). Period images are shown between scenes, but we have no idea who the people are.
At the beginning of the saga, the extended family and friends celebrate December holidays in their opulent apartment. Gathered are Matriarch Grandma Emilia Merz (Betsy Aidem), her son
Hermann (David Krumholtz) and his wife (and a Gentile), Gretl (Faye Castlelow), and their son Jacob (Joshua Satine and Aaron Shuf) who is 8.
Hermann’s sister, Eva (Caissie Levy) and her husband, Ludwig (Brandon Urbanowitz), their son, Pauli (Drew Squire) and their new baby girl, Nellie. Ludwig’s sister, Wilma (Jenna Augen), is married to Gentile Ernst (Aaron Neil). They have two daughters, Sally (Reese Bogin and Romy Fay) and Rosa (Pearl Scarlet Gold and Ava Michele Hyl). Rounding out the family portrait is Ludwig and Wilma’s unmarried younger sister, Hanna (Colleen Litchfield), who plays the piano.
There is laughter and fun, talk of romance for Hanna, who has met an attractive soldier named Fritz (Arty Froushan). Grandma shares stories and pictures from the family album, there is excitement as Gretl is having her portrait painted and a star of David is placed on top of a Christmas tree. All is harmony.
In 1924 the family is joined by Hermine (Eden Epstein), the daughter of Hanna and Kurt (Daniel Cantor), an older Rosa (Augen), Jacob (Seth Numrich), Nellie (Tedra Millan), Sally (Sara Topham) and her husband, Zac (Matt Harrington) as well as Aaron (Jesse Aaronson), Nellie's husband. Nellie sews an Austrian flag, Rosa has come from America for a bris, which gets more discussion that rising unrest against the Jews. The family and their circumstances change, but the photo album, a game of cat's cradle and that portrait of Gretl in her green shawl are constant ties that bind the family together.
In 1938, journalist Percy Chamberlain (Numrich) joins the family and tries to get them to understand that things in Vienna are deteriorating and that they must leave. The general attitude seems to be that the family has weathered similar situations in the past and that they can get exit visas later if necessary.
"It will pass, and something else will take its place," Eva says assuredly. An ominous visit from an official of the state (Cory Brill) and the sound of breaking glass prove Percy's words that "things will get worse . . . much worse," is the right prediction.
Finally, in 1955 there is a reunion of an older Nathan and Rosa and Nellie and Aaron's son Leo (Froushan), who does not remember any of his family roots.
While the family's saga is moving, most of the action takes place off stage and the characters spend most of their time telling us about it. The scene with the government official taking over the family's apartment and questioning them about their activities is the most compelling, because we experience it with them. Most everything else is second hand with lots of exposition that can turn into a yawn fest. There's only so much Director Patrick Marber can do with so many moving parts.
My guess is that if the playwright's name was not Tom Stoppard, this play would have been sent back for some fine tuning and trimming before getting a staging (the run time is two hours and 10 minutes with no intermission). But because it is Tom Stoppard, Leopoldstadt received the Olivier Award for Best New Play in October 2020 for its West End run. And because he has four other Tony Awards for best play under his belt (the most of any playwright), look for this, his 19th play on Broadway, to get another Tony nod in June.
Meanwhile, don't be off by the fact that you can't remember who's who or get confused by new actors in for aging characters or doubling roles. In the end, it's the collective family experience that matters. PS 23 of the 38 actors in this production are making their Broadway debuts.
Leopoldstadt plays at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W 28th St, NYC. leopoldstadtplay.com.
Costume Design, Brigitte Reiffenstuel; sound and original music Adam Cork; and movement by Emily Jane Boyle.
-- No notes
Masks not required