On the Road: Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt on Broadway—a Brilliant and Intense Saga of a Viennese Jewish Family Over Six Decades

Leopoldstadt is a place, a Jewish section of old Vienna. It’s also an imagined history of how two intermarried Jewish families lived (or didn’t live) through six decades of the 20th century, as war and fascism overtook Europe. Most of all, Leopoldstadt seems to be playwright Tom Stoppard’s method of dealing with his own family history. (Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia and became an English boy through his mother’s second husband.) And probably like other family histories (including my own), the Jewish part was  ignored, denied or hidden for generations–until it wasn’t.

The play, which premiered in London in January 2020, and then was shut down by the pandemic, has finally opened in New York in a dark and stunning Broadway production directed by Patrick Marber  It’s a thrilling, heartbreaking story of how these two families, one of them partially Christianized, live and deal with the external society, antisemitism, and ultimately Nazism, in four time  periods: 1899, 1924, 1938 and 1955. Parents and grandparents age and die. Children are born and grow up.

The play is set in the same apartment in all four scenes. It’s a large, luxurious home, near the Ring Strasse, Vienna’s grand boulevard, with many servants in 1899; it changes, as its occupants do, as the war approaches and then recedes. The scenic design by Richard Hudson is gradually reduced to a virtually bare stage by the final scene. Marber manages the large cast brilliantly. There are many fine performances among the 29 characters, played by 38 actors. (Multiple child actors play each child’s role, per child labor laws.)

Faye Castelow as Gretl and David Krumholtz as Hermann. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The play opens on Christmas Eve 1899, as the intermarried and interfaith Merz and Jakobovicz families celebrate the Christian holiday. The children decorate the tree and the guests laugh as one child tops off the tree with a Star of David. Corrected by his mother, the boy replaces it with the Bethlehem star. Hermann Merz (David Krumholtz) is the paterfamilias, a textile manufacturer, married to the Catholic Gretl (Faye Castelow); Hermann has converted to Christianity. Gretl is a society beauty whose portrait is being painted by Gustav Klimt. Hermann and his brother-in-law Ludwig (Brandon Uranowitz), who is married to Hermann’s sister, discuss events of the day, including a men’s dinner and card game that Hermann attended, hoping to become a member of the elite Jockey Club. Hermann’s honor and that of his wife were insulted by a young officer.  It seems that even though Hermann has converted to Christianity (which he thought provided a level of safety), he still is perceived as a Jew. “I’m a Christian, dammit,” he shouts in one scene. Bit it doesn’t matter what he thinks he is. From scene to scene, there are interjections on what it means to be assimilated—and what it means to be a jew—in that era.

To balance the Christmas celebration, the Merz and Jakobovicz families will gather for a Passover seder in the spring. (“March or April, whenever it is,” Hermann replies when asked.)

It’s 1924 in the Merz household. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ludwig, a mathematics professor, dreams of solving the Riemann hypothesis and coaches the children on the importance of math and math skills. Hermann is proud that his young son Jacob can add the numbers one to ten in his head. Ludwig points out that it’s simply a matter of adding five elevens and Jacob should be able to do it more quickly. Ludwig’s love for mathematics continues and in another scene, he teaches the children how to make a cat’s cradle and what each string measurement of the cradle means. The cat’s cradle takes a prominent place in the marketing artwork for Leopoldstadt. It’s an example of Stoppard’s career-long fascination with math and science and their intersection with the arts and humanities. The cradle also symbolizes the complexity of these family relations.

The play moves to 1924, where the family has gathered for a bris (a circumcision ceremony for a Jewish boy baby). The Klimt portrait hangs in a prominent place. We learn that young Jacob (now played by Seth Numrich) was severely wounded in the war, losing an eye and an arm.

In November 1938, the apartment is no longer lavishly decorated; the portrait is gone. There are no servants. Family members shiver, wrapped in sweaters and coats. The Nazis have invaded Austria (the Anschluss of March 1938) and the night will be filled with the noise of shattering glass. Then trouble arrives at the door and life changes for all.

Brandon Uranowitz as Nathan and Arty Froushan as Leo. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The final scene, in an almost empty apartment in 1955, is devastating. Nathan (Brandon Uranowitz) and Rosa (Jenna Augen) explain the family to Leo (Leonard, formerly Leopold, played by Arty Froushan). Leo, who has grown up as an English boy thanks to his English father, may be viewed as a stand-in for Stoppard, who learned late in life about his Jewish heritage.

You may think it sounds complicated to keep track of all the family members and which children belong to which parents. It doesn’t matter significantly however; the play’s flow is fairly easy to follow. But if you are the type who likes to prepare, you can find some Stoppard history and a Leopoldstadt family tree here. The playbill also provides a QR code to link to that history.

I usually don’t read a play or reviews in advance; I prefer to see a new play as an audience member does. I like to have a script at hand while I’m writing a review so the names, quotes and facts I use are accurate. Of course, some plays I know because I’ve seen them many times, like much of Shakespeare, a lot of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, and much of Stoppard. (Some of my favorites are Travesties, Arcadia, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and of course, The Coast of Utopia.)

The Broadway company of Leopoldstadt. Photo by Joan Marcus,

In the case of Leopoldstadt, I ordered a pre-publication copy of the play and read it immediately in 2020. (Yes, I’m a Stoppard fangirl.) Then I read it again recently. But as I sat through this intense and troubling play last week, I was sorry that I had read it in advance. I found myself  anticipating everything that was about to happen. And the powerful ending would have been more powerful if it had come as a surprise.

Leopoldstadt is another Stoppard masterpiece (as are those I noted above). And Patrick Marber’s tight direction keeps the story moving swiftly. The running time of two hours and ten minutes (no intermission) will keep you in its grip until the end.  The mood for each time period is established by a series of vintage photographs projected on a scrim at the front of the stage.

Leopoldstadt reminded me of another political family saga, The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, a story of several generations of an Irish family during the Troubles. The cast is huge, including many children and animals, and the ending is bleak. After seeing it in 2018, I hoped that The Ferryman would go on tour so I could see it again. But I suspect that the cast size makes a tour difficult—and that may be the case with Leopoldstadt.

Tickets for Leopoldstadt are on sale through March 12, 2023.  The play is at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., in New York. Here’s your source for tickets and  more information. Tickets also are on sale online at Telecharge.com or by phone at 212-239-6200.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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