Scott Klavan: Leopoldstadt
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Patrick Marber
Longacre Theatre, Broadway
Reviewed December 29, 2022
By Scott Klavan
Ironically, the most admirable things about Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s latest play, a fictionalization of his family’s experiences and his own childhood as a Jew in Europe before and after WWII, are outside of the show itself. Though the work on stage is absorbing and finally moving. The best aspects of the piece revolve around its Integrity as a planned structured theater project and professional venture. From its number of actors, its casting choices and manner of acting, its length and overall sensibility, and presentation of its topic and themes, the project flies against so much that makes modern theater, and culture in general, particularly in America, so compromised and timid. Leopoldstadt doesn’t give in, and its unyielding choices, though helpful to the show as it is presented, exist proudly and separately, and stand off singularly in their defiance of what have sadly become our artistic norms.
Leopoldstadt was first performed in London in January, 2020 and, after a brief hiatus due to Covid, won the Olivier Award as Best Play. A planned run in Toronto was postponed due again to the virus and, instead, it began performances at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway in September of 2022. The story, told in five scenes from five different time periods, 1899-1955, concerns a prosperous, complacent Jewish Viennese family forced to confront growing anti-Semitism in their country of Austria. In the initial scenes of 1899-1900, a time when Jews were increasingly accepted into Viennese life, ambitious businessman Hermann marries a Catholic woman and converts to her religion, wanting to better fit into gentile high society. But his plan is tarnished by his wife’s affair with anti-Semitic officer Fritz; Hermann, confused and anguished, challenges Fritz to a duel, but the soldier, still viewing the businessman as a Jew, and so, not enough of a man to fight, refuses, further humiliating Hermann.
The family as a group, underestimating Austria’s historic, dormant, now reemerging and virulent hatred of Jews, is gradually swept up in the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. In the final scene, in post-War 1955, family member Leo, who escaped to England when his mother married a Briton, and raised without Jewish identification, returns to the Vienna family home. There, he meets with relatives Rosa, who earlier fled to New York, and Nathan, who survived Auschwitz. Leo, a smugly successful young writer, learns with horror that almost all of his remaining relatives were victims, by illness, suicide, and murder, of the Holocaust. Leo can never fully evade his, and his people’s, history.
The play’s strengths are in its involving story-line, particularly in the opening two sequences, deft dialogue, and smooth staging throughout; its weaknesses in historical and family details that grow tangled, and a predictability in some of the later action. Tom Stoppard’s overly intellectual technique mars some of the interplay here, but unlike some of his earlier works, it drops away and by the finale, he is subtly and searingly punching, stabbing the audience.
But again, it is not these superior, yet in the big general picture, typical theater elements that ultimately stand out, at least to this audience member and critic. As noted, the play has been running for months, the reviews are in: it’s enough to say the play is worth seeing, it will likely win American theater awards to follow the British ones, and its box office is strong.
It’s the surrounding orchestrated construction of the whole Leopoldstadt project that is special. A few examples:
—The cast, including understudies and several children who rotate through parts, roughly numbers 30. Most of today’s non-musical plays, both new works and revivals, have many fewer players.
—There are no “name” actors in the piece. While the cast includes performers who have accomplished careers and extensive credits, both in the U.K. and America, not one actor’s name appears above the title in ads, and none of them are well-known enough to sell tickets on the basis of their fame. It’s another anomaly in a Broadway that always kisses up to stars but particularly now, needs them as it struggles to get audiences to regularly return to shows.
—There are no concessions made to non-traditional casting. All of the actors are white, as they would have been historically; many of them, according to reports, are Jewish. This verisimilitude is rare now, if not unique, on NYC stages, and pretty much everywhere.
—There is little “doubling” or “tripling” of parts. Although one is used to actors playing several different roles in almost every show—a common money-saving practice for decades—this doesn’t happen to any great degree here. Arty Froushan is virtually unrecognizable in his dynamic performances as both Nazi Fritz and the surviving British family member Leo (based loosely on Stoppard himself.) Jenna Augen is earthily effective as a mother and her daughter through the years. But consulting the Playbill after the show finds almost all the other actors play one part.
—The acting, staging, and writing scheme, as it were, is straightforward and comparatively low-key, never letting the audience remove itself from the story events to observe relaxedly the “show biz.” There are no self-absorbed “Broadway” flourishes in the performing. David Krumholtz, essentially the lead as tormented Hermann, keeps his character awkward, even off-putting, lacking in charisma. He does the difficult trick of showing us a man who thinks he is more sophisticated and charming than he is. Director Patrick Marber provides blocking that is basic and traditional. The long scene in 1924 focusing on a bris contains a bunch of circumcision jokes, but none of them are particularly funny, or not enough to give the audience a true respite from the increasingly unnerving background atmosphere of prejudice that is closing in on the family.
—There are no attempts to seem “modern” and “inclusive.” There are no contemporary racist parallels shown, or even hinted at, in the writing or production. The play is unabashedly and unapologetically about Jews and Jews alone, recognizing this group as having its own unique history of persecution, genocide, heartbreak. People on stage behave as if they are living in another place and time period. The production accepts the audience’s ability to watch a time and race-specific story and concurrently receive and understand a metaphor—or it is challenging us to do so.
—The play is performed without intermission and runs about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Normally, the popular current habit of keeping the audience uncomfortably locked in their chairs for long periods of time without break annoys this reviewer. But in Leopoldstadt, it creates a suffocating intensity, and, again, keeps the audience from escaping, from forgetting the “catastrophe,” as character Nathan calls it, of being a Jew.
Playwright Stoppard has given interviews stating that the play was written as a reaction to his own purposeful ignorance of his real-life background as a Jewish boy in pre-war Czechoslovakia: with the country about to be occupied by the Germans, he fled with his mother, father, and brother to Singapore. But his father was killed in a boat sunk by the Japanese, and the family moved to India, where Stoppard’s mother married a gentile military man. In 1946, they landed in England, and Stoppard lived his life essentially as a non-Jew, in schools and then in his brilliant writing career.
But Leopoldstadt, while containing many true incidents from his family’s and his own past, is upfront about being a work of invention, renaming the family, moving the action to Austria, because the Viennese setting and Jewish attitudes and behavior there created a more fertile story. This method of writing, so different from the plethora of “true-life” movies and TV programs of today—ones that many times have to admit and even apologize for discrepancies in storytelling details—is inherently creative and imaginative, finding a deeper truth in something “literally” false, in fiction.
The question then is obvious: are all of these rejections of current conventions, all these creatively honorable choices in the preparing of Leopoldstadt, is all of this integrity, merely the result of the reputation and pull of Tom Stoppard, now 85, and who, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to Travesties to The Real Thing to Arcadia and The Coast Of Utopia, has become revered as one of the past century’s most gifted and popular playwrights? The answer is obvious, too: probably, yes. But it also is a tribute to the producers and director, to the whole company, to the institution of British theater, which, while often making concessions to the political correctness so repressing American theater and culture, here, have chosen art over every other kind of contemporary fear and inhibition, to tell an important story, to make a vital point, to startle and move us. (And congrats to the U.S. producers and audiences who have supported it.) The on-stage family in Leopoldstadt, constrained by unquestioning contentment, blind assimilationist need and insecurity, miss out on the fatal Truth. The offstage theater production is free, and facing it head-on.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, CAA, and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. Scott directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival; and directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods, cast solely with senior actors, for Music Theatre International (MTI) and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; the show was written up in The New York Times. He helped to develop and directed Eleanor and Alice, by Ellen Abrams, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice Longworth, for the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park and the Roosevelt House in NYC. He directed Night Shadows, by Lynda Crawford, about the poet Anna Akhmatova, for the On Women Festival at Irondale Center. He is a Lifetime Acting Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop (PDW), where his own play The Common Area, was chosen as part of the PDW’s Festival of New Works in 2019. During the pandemic, Scott figured out how to direct on Zoom! Scott teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.