David Fox: If ever there was a fool’s errand, it’s reviewing Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. Consider the subject matter alone: a history of Jewish Vienna at various points between 1899 and 1955. (1938—and very specifically, Kristallnacht—is central, in case you had any doubt about how grimly important this story is.) If that’s not enough, the now 85-year-old Stoppard has suggested that Leopoldstadt is likely to be his valedictory work. See what I mean about the double-bind we poor critics are placed in? So, it’s a relief to say that Stoppard’s ability to seamlessly orchestrate large narratives remains a marvel. Multiple generations of characters—embodied by a cast of 26 actors—come and go here with dazzling authorial virtuosity. Director Patrick Marber and the design team have framed it with the jaw-dropping beauty of an exhibit at Neue Galerie.
Cameron Kelsall: The production, now playing on Broadway after success in the West End, is a technical triumph, with special kudos to scenic designer Richard Hudson. I found the way that he traced the escalating precarity of the central family’s situation—from the opulence of Christmas 1899 to the impending terror of Kristallnacht—through the gradual reduction of physical grandeur in the same space as affecting as anything in Stoppard’s text. But the playwright and director also deserve praise for crafting an engrossing and, yes, occasionally moving exploration of citizenship and identity throughout history. But often, I found the piece as a whole exceedingly hollow.
DF: Less happily, still very much in evidence is another Stoppard signature. It’s what I’ve come to think of as his Performance of Erudition, a layering of historical and cultural free association that’s transparently meant to dazzle us with the writer’s intellect and wit (and by association, audiences can congratulate themselves on “getting it”). Early on in Leopoldstadt, Schnitzler, Klimt, and Freud are named checked, with Plato and Aristotle thrown in for good measure. Of Mahler, this is said in the first five minutes:
ERNST: Mahler is taking the Philharmonic to the Paris Exposition. He’s taking his Second Symphony to annoy the French.
Personally, I’m not amused. Mahler’s Second Symphony is not to be dismissed in an airy couplet. I’ve found Stoppard’s smug gamesmanship tiresome in multiple plays. Here, given the subject matter, it’s also in very poor taste.
CK: For most of the play’s first three acts—although presented without intermission, it follows an archaic five-act structure—the real threat at the heart of Leopoldstadt exists in the shadow of the author’s witty banter. (Since the action takes place in Vienna in the early 20th century, and most characters are Jewish, I trust I don’t have to explain where things are heading.) It feels extremely cheap to run through a checklist of cultural touchpoints and boldface names only to distract from the coming gut-punch of Anschluss and Holocaust. Especially when the central themes that the play considers—the price of assimilation and the loss of a communal identity—are extremely worthwhile. Yet in his attempts to be clever, and to overstuff his text with a dictionary’s worth of marginalia, Stoppard never lingers on a character or storyline long enough to develop it into something worth caring about.
DF: Worthy subjects indeed, as you say—but also hardly unfamiliar. We’ve seen them in theater, film, painting, etc. That doesn’t mean Stoppard shouldn’t take them on, but it’s not entirely clear to me what his central focus is here. The larger historical story of the Holocaust and its destruction of a culture is moving here, of course—it could hardly not be—but I think it’s not the play’s strength. There are too many characters, most of whom register as archetypes rather than individuals. The specific details of what happens to them also feel archetypal. For me, it’s the issue of assimilation where Leopoldstadt potentially focuses on an area that still feels under-explored. But it seems to come and go within the play—a through-line the author only intermittently follows.
CK: Agreed—because the story Stoppard really wants to tell is his own. For the uninitiated: he was born in the former Czechoslovakia to secular Jewish parents, who left the country amid the German invasion and ended up in Great Britain. Stoppard has said in interviews that he didn’t fully comprehend his Jewish heritage until he was in his fifties, and that he largely rejected his past due to his thorough Anglicization as a youth. Coincidentally, there is a character who appears in the last act of Leopoldstadt—Leonard Chamberlain, born Leopold Rosenbaum—whose backstory closely mimics that of the author. But even then, Stoppard doesn’t entirely explore the complicated emotions of losing a homeland, a religion, or a family. The denouement quickly spirals into a comment on the greater historical moment rather than the individual experience.
DF: I don’t disagree, but honestly, I don’t have a problem that this ultimately becomes a Holocaust play—I think it’s almost inevitable, given the subject. What bothers me more is that through the character of Leonard/Leo, Stoppard places himself at the center of the narrative. Leonard’s journey of self-discovery is certainly an act of contrition, but to me, the sincerity is undercut by my sinking sense that in the end, it’s all about him. You know, it occurs to me that so far, we’ve focused on Leopoldstadt in a very meta way, without really saying much about the production. (Sort of an “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” problem.) Maybe we should say something more about the show as a show (if that doesn’t sound too crude, given the topic.)
CK: I can say that I was rarely bored, although that’s due (at least in part) to needing to maintain constant engagement so as not to lose the thread of the plot. Yet even just two days after seeing the performance, there are very few performances or moments between people that remain fresh in my mind. David Krumholtz is sympathetic in the central role of Hermann Merz, a Catholic convert who learns too late that his money and connections won’t protect him from anti-Semitism, and Brandon Uranowitz brings a wiry energy to Nathan, one of the few characters who survives the Holocaust. Yet what I mostly remember are the stage pictures—gorgeous, sure, but ultimately empty.
DF: Pictorial for sure, but as you say—those pictures overwhelm a sense of individuals. I agree that Krumholtz and Uranowitz are the standouts—in a smaller role, I also thought Seth Numrich did well. One could employ the phrase “ensemble cast” as a gentle euphemism to suggest that hardly anybody registers. There are simply too many people and not enough specific details. Following the matinee performance of Leopoldstadt, we attended Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, which you’ve reviewed here, Cameron. I will only add that the extraordinary power and simplicity of Majok’s writing—her ability to create flawed, noble human beings who really register as characters—was an almost healing experience for me. I imagine the two plays will face off for the Tonys. I certainly know where I found great art that moved me deeply.