Thursday, April 13, 2023

NYC Theater Trip 2023: "Leopoldstadt" at the Longacre Theatre

Show*: 1

Title: Leopoldstadt

Location: Longacre Theatre

Written By: Tom Stoppard

Summary: An epic story covering multiple generations of a Jewish family in Vienna from 1899 through 1955.

Highlights: This is prolific playwright Sir Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, et al) at his most personal. He has woven a story of generations from his own family history. His family fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia when he was young, and he grew up in England knowing little of that history. Now he grapples with it in a play that spans 56 years and could easily be made into a 10-episode Netflix series with the multiple characters and stories it contains, some barely hinted at. We begin in 1899, with two interwined Jewish families putting up a Christmas tree for "the papist children," a couple of its members having married Christians. In over two hours without an intermission (which is a bit long, but does contribute to the epic and unrelenting feeling of the tragic story), we follow generations of this family (children in the first act are adults in the second with children of their own that continue into the next scene) into 1924 recovering from WWI, 1938 with the impending cloud of the the Holocaust beginning to spread, and 1955 when those that are left reflect on their history. In typical Stoppard fashion there's smart and witty dialogue, a scandalous affair, a humorous misunderstanding involving a bris, and talk of mathematics and art. All of this plays out against the backdrop of this once prominent and successful family having their property, culture, and lives stolen from them.

This is one of the largest, if not the largest, casts I've ever seen in a play. 30+ actors (including children) play these characters at several different ages in a complicated family tree (helpfully displayed in the program). They're all wonderful and make the most of sometimes minimal stage time (notable cast members include Joshua Malina from The West Wing, Scandal, and more, and Minnesotan Seth Numrich who was unfortunately out the night I saw the show). The set (designed by Richard Hudson) transforms from an elegant late 19th Century Viennese apartment, to a more modern '20s home, to the desolation of pre and post WWII, all with the change of lighting, a few set pieces, and the large piece of art hanging on the back wall. These changes are happening during scene transitions behind a screen upon which is displayed historical footage of scenes from the era.

Leopoldstadt (which refers to the Jewish quarter in Vienna) is a story of generational trauma and how it affects different generations differently, even those who were not conciously aware of it (i.e., the character of Leopold/Leonard who, like the playwright, was brought up in England with an English stepfather). Specifically the generational trauma of Jewish families who saw entire branches of their family tree disappear, cut off at the root by the Holocaust and now allowed to continue. As my sociologist friend says, it's also about "the lie of assimilation." Some of the characters convert to Christianity and try to put their Jewishness behind them, but no matter what they do, they are still treated as such by the people in power when it benefits them. It's a story of family history and ancestry, and how we keep those memories and stories alive when the players are long gone. It's an epic and dense play with may layers and many questions raised, one I would like to see again. Maybe our own Six Points Theater will take it on one day, although they're going to need a bigger stage.

*Once again, I'm using an abbreviated Fringe-style summary for my NYC 2023 trip, since I am in the greatest city in the world with much more exciting things to do than write! Click here to see all of my Broadway-related blog posts.