Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt Digs Deep into History and the Heart

The Broadway Company of Leopoldstadt at the Longacre Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus (2022).

The Broadway Review: Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt

By Ross

The ending awaits, intuitively known from the moment we see the family tree projected and the Christmas tree decorated. Even in its complexity, we know how this will all turn out. Ultimately. Tom Stoppard’s epic and masterful new play, Leopoldstadt, direct from an award-winning run in the West End, is laying it all out for us, the Jewishness and politics as part and parcel of it and their identity. They are embraced and altered, compromised for an ease of interactions and consumption in 1899 Vienna. Holding it all in, close to the heartstrings, Stoppard’s intense play dives deep into the generational trauma and descent of an affluent Jewish family living and intellectualizing their existence with an understandable false sense of security. And ultimately, we are living that delusional nightmare right now, as Fascism tries to grab hold in the early 21st Century.

The large phenomenal cast is, across the board, exceptional, “first in the class”, particularly inside the grounded honesty of Brandon Uranowitz (Broadway’s Burn This) and his Ludwig, and the radiant Faye Castelow (NT’s Man and Superman) as the Christian wife Gretl, who slowly comes to embrace the religion of her husband, Hermann (David Krumholtz) even as he tries to separate himself. Gretl’s portrait takes on a heightened immortality that, both internally and externally, becomes a function and a symbol of the crashing of humanity and morality in Austria. It floats, hangs, and dances with intellectual curiosity and engagement, making this play somewhat more emotionally engaging and connecting than many of his other plays. They debate and argue politics and commerce, while also talking about faith and distrust of what the future holds; a horrifying outcome and knowledge that we all carry deep within us, but one that they haven’t visualized yet inside this household. “Things can’t get worse,” one says, yet the weight of history knows just how bad it will eventually get.

Faye Castelow (Gretl) and David Krumholtz (Hermann) in Leopoldstadt at the Longacre Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus (2022).

Stoppard draws out the descent expertly, as is his typical skill, giving us no escape from the rising tension and dread we wholeheartedly feel for the entirety of the 140-minute running time (with no intermission). He doesn’t want to give us a reprieve from the historic layering, and rightly so. And as directed with exacting emotional precision by Patrick Marber (Broadway’s Travesties), Leopoldstadt never fails the function. The symbolic ideal, set out before us on the pages of that family photo album, rises up beyond that red binding and is beautifully brought forth by one of the elder women of this clan. “How fast the disappearing of the remembered” comes. And in that line, it feels, like all is laid out inside the familial framework of this piece of photographic theatrical art. And the grief is strong.

The first scene, orchestrated beautifully and lushly by set designer Richard Hudson, (Broadway’s The Lion King) with detailed stitching by costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel (London’s Light in the Piazza) and lighting by Neil Austin (Broadway’s Company), the thematic point is curated impeccably. This family will fall, broken and destroyed, and we will bear witness to a diabolical piece of history that is much more harrowing than we were anticipating. They “wanted to rob us in an organized manner” and they do, heartlessly, and we must sit by and watch with a growing sense of dread until the roll call at the end firmly establishes the gravity of the brutality.

Eden Epstein (Hermine) and Calvin James Davis (Heini) in Leopoldstadt at the Longacre Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus (2022).

This is a family portrait painted with grief, pain, trauma, and love, done with the fine and magnificent photographic craftsmanship of this stellar playwright, his phenomenally talented cast and crew, living and dying in this smart tender play. The “innocent victims“ we see as children who become adults give a depth that can’t be denied. Playing with the toys that will soon be left behind or taken. Like all those memories that haunt the ones that escaped. Forgetting and/or carrying the weight of trauma; generational trauma, forward into our hearts and minds through the pure smart magic and poetry of this play. It will take your breath away, imprinting memories and meaning within. Breaking our hearts as each page of that familial album is turned for the next generation to see.

Caissie Levy (Eva) and Betsy Aidem (Grandma Emilia) in Leopoldstadt at the Longacre Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus (2022).

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