Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s engrossing new play on Broadway, tells the story of a well-to-do Jewish family. Over five long scenes—or five short acts, of you will—the play covers 56 years in the lives of several generations of a family Jews in Vienna from the turn of the last century to 1955.
In the beginning, it is chaos. A large family gathers to celebrate Christmas in 1899. A party is going full bore, with characters talking as much at each other as to each other. Drinks are served desserts are made. One gets snippets of conversation but nothing really sticks at first.
Atop the tree is a Star of David. Eight-year-old Jacob who “has been baptized and circumcised in the same week,” has made a show of putting it there. Is he confused or assimilated? It’s hard to tell—the family is mostly Jewish; only two, Gretl and Ernst, are gentiles—but the question of identity comes up many times over the course of the play.
Soon the chaos fades and the focus is on a conversation between Hermann and Ludwig. Hermann believes in assimilation Ludwig is not so sure. Actually, he is pretty sure he doesn’t. In this conversation, we get the play’s big question, “What does it mean to be a Jew?” It is a question asked or implied all through Leopoldstadt. And the play provides answers, lots of them, and many of them contradictory. Does one live openly as a Jew or assimilate? Can one assimilate? Should Jews have their own country and if so where? Palestine, Argentina, Madagascar?
As often as not it is outside events that provide some answers. A Jew in late-19th-century Vienna is not the same as one in 1938 during Krystallnacht and certainly not in 1955. Leopoldstadt has many actors and characters, and Stoppard weaves their stories in seamlessly against the backdrop of history all the while maintaining a tight focus on the importance of identity.
In lesser hands, Leopoldstadt could easily have devolved into a debate or a treatise, which is the major pitfall of many a play like this, but Stoppard keeps the humanity front and center. His characters are completely fleshed out, and if the Nazis here seem too familiar, it is really difficult for most people to see their good side. On top of everything, the play really moves. Its two hours and 10 minutes virtually fly by.
By the end of the play, that large chaotic family in the opening scene has been reduced to three people, and the reading of the names of the deceased and their fates is a quiet but sustained gut punch.
Stoppard is probably best known for his plays featuring verbal and mental acrobatics. Of course there are great stretches of dialogue, smart arguments, well-drawn characters and speeches that stop just short of being showstoppers, but Leopoldstadt is a more subdued, straightforward and most personal Stoppard.
To call this his masterwork may be a bit misleading, it is certainly among his best work, but then he has about 20 best works, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Travesties, The Coast of Utopia and The Real Thing to name a few. Those are pretty fine hairs to split at that level of excellence.
Standouts in the large and excellent cast include David Krumholtz as Herman, a misguided idealist, and Brandon Uranowitz as Ludwig who clings to the order that math provides in a chaotic world, and later as the reflective Nathan in 1955.
In his most personal play to date, Oscar, Olivier and Tony award winner Stoppard delivers many breathtaking moments in this masterpiece of a play.
Leopoldstadt is now playing at the Longacre Theatre. 220 West 48th Street, New York.