theater review

Tom Stoppard Imagines His Family’s Mostly Forgotten Past

From Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, at the Longacre. Photo: Joan Marcus

“It’s like a second death” for your name to be forgotten in a family album, a grandmother reflects. Flip back far enough, and who can identify that couple waving from a train except the others who followed them to the grave? One way to look at Leopoldstadt, the latest historical drama by Tom Stoppard, is as a ceremony laying the dead to rest. The genealogical tree that descends on a scrim between the first few scenes is a kind of holy record. Too fleeting to be of much use as a cheat sheet for the sprawling cast of characters onstage at the Longacre Theatre, it functions as a memorial for those who were denied their humanity during life.

Leopoldstadt is the sort of dizzying intellectual panorama for which Stoppard is revered — a chronicle of social movements, theoretical frameworks, and geopolitical catastrophes. (Drink every time someone speaks passionately about the state of the world, and you’ll have to crawl home.) The play, directed by Patrick Marber in a production that premiered in the West End, proceeds through 50-plus years in just over two hours, introducing more than two dozen characters that it seems to understand we won’t be able to keep straight. Those details don’t matter in the larger sweep of history, and the family’s fate is evident from the start.

The curtain rises on the controlled chaos of a bourgeois living room in 1899 Vienna, where a flurry of smartly dressed children are clamoring for sweets as their parents, variously related by blood and marriage, volley back and forth about the budding intellectuals of the age. By the time one of the boys tops the Christmas tree with a Star of David, amid talk of Herzl and Mahler, we start to figure out who’s who in this Jewish and gentile blended family.

A philosophical dialogue between brothers-in-law establishes their turn-of-the-century milieu and its crosscurrents of Jewish identity. Hermann (David Krumholtz) has converted to Catholicism for his wife, Gretl (Faye Castelow), whose affection for his repudiated Judaism grows, over the years, into genuine devotion. A businessman and social striver, Hermann is a proponent of assimilation, arguing for Jews’ integral place at the center of Viennese culture. Ludwig (Brandon Uranowitz), who is married to Hermann’s sister Eva (Cassie Levy), is a mathematician enamored with logic, cynical about the persistence of anti-Semitism, and drawn to the newly formed idea of a Jewish state. “A Jew can be a great composer” and even become the toast of the town, he says. “But he can’t not be a Jew.” (The play is named for what was once Vienna’s Jewish ghetto.)

There is levity to the opening crossfire between Hermann and Ludwig, couched as they are in the material comforts of the posh middle class. Hope for the new century hangs in the air; Freud has proposed the interpretation of dreams, Klimt is painting a portrait of Gretl, and the children are learning how to carry on traditions.

If Leopoldstadt has a dramatic engine, propelling the story forward 15 to 20 years at a time, it’s dread. Of course, we know where all of this is heading. Much of the tension and wit generated by Stoppard’s dialogue springs from the morbid wisdom of hindsight. Soon it’s 1924 and the kids are grown up, voicing their own fervent opinions between wars as the next generation rises behind them, joining their procession toward the nightmare that will engulf them all.

In a crowded field of characters, Castelow’s Gretl comes closest to the story’s emotional core; her affair with a gentile officer (Arty Froushan) is a rare instance of desire that’s rooted in the body rather than the body politic (though its consequences have broader social resonance). Her portrait, hanging over ensuing scenes, serves as a reminder of lost vitality. Splendor gradually drains from Richard Hudson’s set, which fades from ornate to sepulchral under Neil Austin’s lighting, as the march of the 20th century grows louder outside the door.

Stoppard, who was born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia and fled the Nazi occupation as a child, has said that much of the play is personal to him, though he set it among a Viennese family so it would seem less so, and to invoke the city’s rich cultural legacy. The character of Leopold, raised an English boy away from the turmoil of the Second World War, is a stand-in for the playwright, whose four grandparents and three aunts were murdered in the Holocaust — details that Stoppard did not learn until his 50s.

As a vehicle for recovered memories, and for interrogating the injustice of difference and persistent intolerance, Leopoldstadt is remarkable. What does it mean to be without a homeland? What are the stakes of claiming allegiance to an identity before and after doing so becomes a death sentence? Who has the privilege to make that choice, and how can they live with it in the end? That the play manages to turn over questions like these within an intermissionless couple of hours is a Stoppardian feat.

But Leopoldstadt is also full of characters that it can’t possibly develop in satisfying detail, a quandary that’s all but admitted onstage at moments when even Gretl can’t quite pinpoint her relations. This is not a nine-hour voyage, like Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, about the fomenting of the Russian revolution. Besides, expecting him to lead with the head and the heart in anywhere near equal measure would be a fool’s errand. He is a master of the cerebral arts, a magician at pulling archival exposition from the mouths of his characters. Still, the potential for them to have more vivid inner lives, to lend fresh perspective and insight to familiar events, remains mostly unfulfilled. As matters turn increasingly toward life or death, we may grow fearful for the people on stage, but we can’t really say who they are or what they want, other than to survive.

But their stories have been spoken here and the outlines of their imagined lives recorded, like those snapshots that desperately need names attached. If it’s their ideas for which they are to be remembered, perhaps that’s just as well. In each new decade, someone claims the atrocities of the past couldn’t possibly be repeated, and each time they’re proven wrong. So Leopoldstadt is also a warning, as a third great war seems a hair’s breadth away, and the gears of history continue to churn. Yet again, we would do well to listen.

Leopoldstadt is at the Longacre Theatre.

Tom Stoppard Imagines His Family’s Mostly Forgotten Past