The Strausslers (Tom Stoppard’s family) fled Czechoslovakia at the cusp of Nazi occupation. They relocated to Singapore then three of them uprooted again – to India, escaping the Japanese. (His father stayed behind as a British army volunteer and was killed.) When he was nine, Tom’s mother married Major Kenneth Stoppard who took them to England. Admittedly “someone with a pass,” the child became “a perfect English schoolboy and didn’t look back – which only appears to be a harmless phrase. We had family in Communist Czechoslovakia, so yes, I didn’t have a lapse of memory, I had a lapse of character…a culpable lapse of curiosity.” (The playwright as interviewed by Daniel Kehlmann.)
Stoppard was for years unaware of his roots. His mother explained they “weren’t Jews in black hats. Some of the family married Catholics without comment.” Bowing to commonality of assimilation, his Jewish grandparents were baptized as adults. Poet Heinrich Heine called Christian baptism his “entry ticket into European culture.” A character in Leopoldstadt declares, “Assimilation doesn’t mean you stop being a Jew, what it means is to continue to be a Jew without insult.” Provocative perspective.
Joshua Satine (Young Jacob)
Leopoldstat is divided into five chapters 1899–1955, each prefaced by an evocative slide show. (Projection Design – Isaac Madge.) From a pastoral Christmas scene reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (here, the child Jacob puts a Jewish star atop the holiday tree. “…for you little Papists,” the matriarch remarks), through Kristallnacht (the shift from anti-Semitic rhetoric and legislation to brutality and violence), through the Holocaust – and its aftermath, we follow the extended Merz family and relatives by marriage, the Jacoboviczes- some declared Christian, all born Jewish.
At Hermann Merz’s home near patrician Ringstrasse (not, pointedly, the old Jewish quarter Leopoldstat), we meet: Grandmother Emilia (Betsy Aidem); her son, textile manufacturer Hermann Merz (David Krumholtz); his Christian wife Gretl (Faye Castelow); and son Jacob (Joshua Satine); Hermann’s sister Eva (Caissie Levy; her mathematician husband Ludwig (Brandon Unranowitz); their sister Wilma (Jenna Augen); with her humanist doctor husband Ernst (Aaron Neil); and, their younger sister Hannah (Colleen Litchfield).
Brandon Uranowitz (Ludwig) and David Krumholtz (Hermann)
Emilia is writing names of those faces she recalls in a scrapbook. “It’s like a second death to lose your name in a family album.” (Forgetting is an issue in Stoppard’s Acadia, India Ink, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.) There’s already evidence of prejudice in Austria. Hermann, who thinks of himself as assimilated and therefore protected, admits parents who fled Russia “…live with their bags backed,” but adds, “it doesn’t catch up with them.”
A first mention of Theodor Herzl’s plan for a Jewish state in Palestine is called unnecessarily alarmist. Sigmund Freud, who’s analyzing Ludwig, Gustav Klimt commissioned to paint Gretl, Gustav Mahler, and Alfred Schnitzler come up in conversation. Vienna is the Paris of middle Europe. Hannah’s enamored of Fritz (Arty Froushan), an Austrian soldier who badmouths “the little Jewess” in private.
One son is killed in the Great War from which another, Jacob (Seth Numrich), returns with a single eye, a single arm and articulated fury. Ernst and Wilma’s daughter Rosa (Jenna Augen) visits from America. Hannah’s flapper daughter Hermine (Eden Epstein) daughter of Hannah and Curt resolves to snag a banker, “one of the other ones.” Rosa’s sister Sally (Sara Topham) doesn’t want her son circumcised. This last parentheses borders on farce, though Stoppard’s wit is reticent in this piece. Gretl, whose portrait now has pride of place, has discovered The Old Testament. Ludwig exposes the boys to math with cat’s cradle. German nationals outnumber Social Democrats.
Warnings to get out of Austria by British journalist Percy (Seth Numrich) affianced to Nellie, daughter of Ludwig and Eva (Tedra Millan), fall on deaf ears. The Merz and Jacoboviczes are confident trouble will pass. Haven’t Jews faced threats again and again? Aren’t they upstanding members of the community? By the time the families told to line up with suitcases by a truly frightening official (Corey Brill) in a scene where Nazis never need to raise a hand, the apartment has been stripped, Ernst is training for a menial job, Ludwig’s mind is drifting, and Hermine’s husband, having to chose between wife and employment has divorced her. Even mischlings (the Nazi term for religious “half breeds”) are not safe.
Finally, all that’s left of the family is Sally and Zac’s son Nathan (Brandon Uranowitz), having survived a camp, Rosa, now a Freudian analyst in New York, back to claim the family home, and Ludwig and Eva’s grandson, naïve Leo who’s been raised in England. Born Leopold Rosenbaum, the perfect blonde footballer is legally called Leo Chamberlain to assuage his mother – in case Hitler won. He knows next to nothing about the family and what they endured. Nathan is incredulous; Rosa guilty and determined to make the young man aware. The dead are acknowledged. The theater holds its breath.
Brandon Uranowitz (Nathan) and Arty Froushan (Leo)
At a time when Fascism and Anti-Semitism are again on the rise, Tom Stoppard demands remembrance of his audience and himself. ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ (Sinclair Lewis) is no longer a fantasy. Those who turn their backs on history or censor it grow in number. Leopoldstat is as close to autobiography as the brilliant playwright has shared, but not just his, also ours. He’s not asking us to mourn, but rather to respect and be alert, wake up! This work is intellectual, audacious, theatrical, moving, and rife with social commentary.
The company is outstanding with Seth Numrich, David Krumholtz, Brandon Uranowitz, and Faye Castelow standouts. Child actors fill out the portrait with grace.
Director Patrick Marber delivers a beautifully orchestrated human drama, replete with aesthetic stage composition and masterful pacing.
Richard Hudson’s scenic design presents period opulence, then raw minimalism – change in tandem with narrative. The ceiling and portrait are particularly wonderful. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes are character correct, flattering, and, like Hudson’s work, define the times.
Sound design and original music by Adam Cork feels as if composed “then” and arrives symbiotically.
Two caveats: First, the playwright at one point, at length, stuffs so much smart political history into the mouths of argumentative family, one would have to be very well versed to catch and understand it all. Fortunately, most of the story evolves in graspable, individual terms. Secondly, as we move through the years, older characters are recognized by hair color and movement, while children who become adults remain a challenge to identify until called by name. (Even then, it takes some beats to remember child of whom.) Never pandering to his audience, Stoppard keeps us confused awhile. Fewer family members of whom to keep track might help some.
A family tree in our programs would help immeasurably.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: The Family at Passover
Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Patrick Marber
220 West 48th Street