By Tulis McCall
“Leopoldstadt” by Tom Stoppard This is the story of two families living in Vienna, Merz and Jacobovicz, and how, through the magic of the exact right proportions of misfortune, luck, perseverance, and good fortune, this wild family tree managed to produce one Leo Chamberlain (Arty Froushan), AKA Leopold Rosenbaum, AKA the writer Tom Stoppard, whose story this is.
The long and short of it is that Leopold’s mother Nellie Rosenbaum (Tedra Milan) married a certain Englishman, Percy Chamberlain (Seth Numrich) the morning after Kristallnacht in Vienna, 1938. Once in England Leopold Rosenbaum’s name name was changed to Leo Chamberlain, and this 100% Jewish lad was raised as a Gentile. We learn all this in the last powerful and intimate chapter of “Leopoldstadt” set in 1955, when Leo takes a trip back to Austria for a speaking engagement and is discovered by his relatives. It is a shattering scene that sneaks up on you and hits you where you live.
But it takes a long time to get there.
Stoppard goes back four generations – beginning in 1899 – to the time when the Merz and Jacobovicz families came together at holidays. There was one mixed marriage to a Catholic on the Jacobovicz side and one conversion to Catholicism on the Merz side – so it was an eclectic mix. And even then there was talk by the men (mansplaining at its best) attacking or defending Theodore Herzl and his stand on creating a Jewish State in Palestine. While the women discussed family affairs the men expostulated – not only on Herzl, but mathematics (why is the cat’s cradle a mathematical miracle?), and Feud. There is even a secret affair that betrays a family member – which was promising but fizzled out.
Next we travel ahead to 1924 where the trappings of 1899 have been diminished. There is a new grandson and a Briss (Jewish ceremony of circumcision) to be performed in one room while business and politics are being discussed in the next. The political wind is shifting and the rumbles can be heard, but they are still far, far away.
In 1938 the rumbles are in full force. The Nazi’s have taken over and the Jews are to be removed from wherever it is they are. We see the same two families now living together because there is nowhere else to go. It is the day of Kristallnacht and everyone in the apartment is given instructions to be ready to leave. Some make other plans. Plans that involve escape and plans that involve suicide. The living will go to Leopoldstadt – the Jewish ghetto in Austria where no good happens.
Finally we arrive at 1955 when the only thing in the apartment is the old piano, three people, some coffee and cake. As I said, this is where the play comes to an intimate and emotional resolution. It is in this scene that the story pauses long enough for us to grab hold of the characters and watch as they get to know one another after 17 years. This is the scene that Stoppard knows best because, I am assuming, he was there.
As to the rest of the play – in his desire to tell the story of his ancestors Mr. Stoppard has created something more like a history course. Austrian Jewish History 101. He tries to include every element of Jewish discrimination, and as a result the specificity of the tales get diluted.
This past February there was another play, Prayer for the French Republic, at Manhattan Theatre Club. It’s author, Joshua Harmon, attempted something similar. He traced a Jewish family living in Paris back four generations. His approach, however, began with relationships, not politics. (Betsy Aidem, Grandma Emilia here, was the brilliant center of that family’s universe.) When the play was over we were hard put to leave the theatre, so deep was the connection to these characters.
In Leopoldstadt, however, the action between these characters is mostly exposition. While informative, it is not heart grabbing. It is a rare moment when a character has an emotional crossroad that needs tending. The characters seem to be on an assembly line, and their purpose is to get on with it so the next chapter can take the stage. As such, these characters become important for what they represent, not who they are.
This is another case of John Randolph’s eternal admonition: “You must never blame the actors.” This cast delivers the goods and then some. But there is only so much they can do.
PS The family tree document used in the production would be a great insert in the programs.
Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard, Directed by Patrick Marber
CAST: Jesse Aaronson*, Betsy Aidem, Jenna Augen*, Japhet Balaban*, Corey Brill, Daniel Cantor*, Faye Castelow*, Erica Dasher*, Eden Epstein*, Gina Ferrall, Arty Froushan*, Charlotte Graham*, Matt Harrington, Jacqueline Jarrold, Sarah Killough, David Krumholtz, Caissie Levy, Colleen Litchfield*, Tedra Millan, Aaron Neil*, Seth Numrich, Anthony Rosenthal, Christopher James Stevens*, Sara Topham, Brandon Uranowitz, Dylan S. Wallach, Reese Bogin*, Max Ryan Burach*, Calvin James Davis*, Michael Deaner*, Romy Fay*, Pearl Scarlett Gold*, Jaxon Cain Grundleger*, Wesley Holloway*, Ava Michele Hyl*, Joshua Satine*, Aaron Shuf*, Drew Squire*.
* indicates an actor making their Broadway debut.
Scenic design Richard Hudson, costume design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, lighting design by Neil Austin, sound and original music by Adam Cork, video design by Isaac Madge, movement by Emily Jane Boyle, and hair, wig & makeup design by Campbell Young & Associates.
Tickets are on sale online at Telecharge.com or by phone at 212-239-6200.