Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 2, 2022
Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Patrick Marber. Scenic design by Richard Hudson. Costume design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Lighting design by Neil Austin. Sound design and original music by Adam Cork. Projection design by Isaac Madge. Movement by Emily Jane Boyle. Hair, wig, and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Dialect coach Kate Wilson.
Brilliantly directed by Patrick Marber, Leopoldstadt is a sweeping saga about a large Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, covering in five acts and about 130 minutes the years 1899 to 1955. It is, by its nature, expansive rather than intimate (the cast numbers 38). We only get to know a few of the characters well enough to be able to follow them with certainty as the decades pass by. Yet the overall portrait it paints is as rich as a vast collection of family photos like the ones that are shown as projected slides as we enter the theater and between each of the acts.
That we don't know whose images are on display represents an important theme of the play, of the significance of stories and collective memory, sometimes all that keeps a family going until it dissolves into the ether. "It's still an amazing thing to me, to know the faces of the dead," says Wilma (Jenna Augen), one of the family members who is peering through a photo album in the play's opening scene. "I can remember Grandpa Jakobovicz's tobacco-stained whiskers, but his wife died giving birth to Poppa before there were photographs, so now no one knows what she looked like any more than if she'd been some kind of rumor." We lookers-on don't know, unless he chooses to tell us, if Stoppard had access to photos and detailed histories of his deceased relatives from his home country of Czechoslovakia, but he certainly has been able to capture emotional truth within the world he has created within Vienna's Jewish quarter. In doing so, he is keeping those "rumors" alive, to be read about and performed for a long time to come.
It is hard to overstate how much we learn from the splendidly staged opening scene, a parlor in an upscale apartment. Beautifully designed by Richard Hudson, it is a tastefully yet comfortably decorated space in which some dozen adults and children are engaged in various conversations and activities. It is Christmas time in Vienna at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Someone is playing carols on the piano, and a large Christmas tree sits to one side. It all represents the epitome of assimilation, this large family gathering in which only a few of its members are not Jewish and where the Christmas tree is, for a short time, topped with a large Star of David. We are among the gathered clan in the home of the Merz family: Grandma Emilia (Betsy Aidem), her son Hermann (David Krumholtz), his Catholic wife Gretl (Faye Castelow), and Hermann and Gretl's eight-year-old son Jacob (a rotating role, performed by Joshua Satine at the performance I attended).
There is so much to praise about this production, an Olivier Award winner for its earlier London engagement. Let's start with its altogether terrific ensemble of mostly American actors, with a few holdovers from England. Standouts include Ms. Castelow, Mr. Krumholtz, and Brandon Uranowitz, whose character, Ludwig, constructs a pounding tennis match out of a lengthy and passionate debate with Krumholtz's Hermann about anti-Semitism and the possibility of a Jewish homeland. Kudos, as well, to the design team, with a magnificent array of costumes provided by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, highly effective yet subtle sound design and original music by Adam Cork, and lighting by Neil Austin, who, with equal subtlety, sets the stage aglow or hides it in ominous shadows.
It is truly amazing how much Stoppard has packed into two hours (no intermission to interfere with the flow), and how well director Patrick Marber has orchestrated the entire enterprise. Admirers of the playwright will, of course, have their favorites from among his many works. If you are looking for clever word play and twisty plot turns, you won't find them here. Instead, Leopoldstadt gives us a linear narrative, a three-dimensional set of characters, and an adherence to credibility about the past that, if you are paying attention, also serves as a warning for the not-too-distant future. Not a shabby way to cap off an altogether glorious career!