I approach each new Tom Stoppard play with anticipation (“he’s still going strong at 85!”) and trepidation (“I’m not going to get this!”). Shows like Jumpers and Travesties, however well-mounted, always leave me befuddled, dazzled into submission by their wit and wordplay as they leapfrog through often obscure history. But we may have caught up with each other: Rock ‘n’ Roll and the three-part, nine-hour magnum opus that is The Coast of Utopia needed neither annotation nor cross-referencing after I experienced them on Broadway. I got them (I think), and watching them was a revivifying, rather than enverating, experience. I passed the test.
His latest, Leopoldstadt, presents its own challenges. It progresses through five time periods, the most wrenching as the Nazis claw their way to power over dead or dispersed Jews in 1938. There are more than thirty characters up there onstage at the Longacre, and figuring out who’s who and how they’re related will take you till about 1924. (I’m not entirely sure about some of the linkages, but some of the guesswork is embedded in the storyline.) It runs two intermission-less hours, which those lacking stout bladders should realize. (I spent a section of 1938 looking past fellow patrons who were to-and-froing from the bathroom.) It’s also an extremely personal, and extremely wrenching, story for the playwright to tell; he had no idea of his Jewish family history in Czechoslovakia until thirty years ago. And while there is a bit of magic involving cat’s cradles and other games played on festive occasions he does it without much of his trademark linguistic sleight-of-hand. It’s as unadorned as he gets.
But it teems with life. In 1899 Vienna the Merz and Jacobovicz families celebrate…Christmas, with a Star of David adorning the tree. Intermarriage, assimilation, and culture (Freud is newly in the air) provide a kind of armor against the travails past generations of Jews had to endure. But an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, one that will gather into a river and become a tsunami over the decades, is felt. The show is richly peopled, with familiar theatre faces David Krumholtz and Brandon Uranowitz cast as squabbling brothers-in-law, and Caissie Levy as Krumholtz’s sister. But not for nothing is a family tree paramount among Isaac Madge’s projections. Yet it’s best to go with Stoppard’s flow rather than focus on the who’s who, which the playwright has laced with a surprise or two anyway.
Leopoldstadt has been directed by another fine scribe, Patrick Marber (Closer). Both have elected to have the set (Richard Hudson), lighting design (Neil Austin), and costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) convey key emotions of the piece, with these elements resplendent in the first movement and all but completely denuded in the post-World War II era. The rest is history, and mural, and diorama: Passover in 1900 brings a love triangle with consequences for the future; 1924 (pictured) a comical circumcision and a grim reminder of the Great War as the Twenties roar; and 1938 the pivotal, terrible year of Anschluss, and a bitter end to family life as everything is dismantled and carted off by the Nazis. (The unseen tumult outside the door is vividly conveyed by Adam Cork’s sound design and music.) In 1955 a handful of survivors gather, one a London-raised and thoroughly assimilated comic novelist (Arty Froushan) with no recollection of the child he was when we saw him earlier. All that remains of these smart, cunning, loving, and cultured people are shards of memory–which, all these years later, Stoppard has delicately reassembled for us. He’s affected me in many ways, but this is the first time he reduced me to tears.