Reviews

Leopoldstadt ****

By: Paulanne Simmons

October 9, 2022: Tom Stoppard was born Tomáš Sträussler, in Czechoslovakia. His family was Jewish, and on March 15, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, they fled to Singapore. Before the Japanese occupation of Singapore, Stoppard, his brother, and their mother escaped to India, while his father remained. When Stoppard was four, his father died, and when he was eight, his mother married British army major Kenneth Stoppard, and the family moved to England. Tomáš had already become Tom, and now he was Tom Stoppard. 

By: Paulanne Simmons

October 9, 2022: Tom Stoppard was born Tomáš Sträussler, in Czechoslovakia. His family was Jewish, and on March 15, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, they fled to Singapore. Before the Japanese occupation of Singapore, Stoppard, his brother, and their mother escaped to India, while his father remained. When Stoppard was four, his father died, and when he was eight, his mother married British army major Kenneth Stoppard, and the family moved to England. Tomáš had already become Tom, and now he was Tom Stoppard. 

It wasn’t until the 1990s that a cousin Stoppard didn’t even know existed informed him that not only was he Jewish but all four of his grandparents had died in concentration camps. Thus, he became part of an ever-growing group of the suddenly Jewish, a group that includes Madeleine Albright and John Kerry. Now, at the age of 85, Stoppard is coming to terms with his own history in his newest play, Leopoldstadt.

Leopoldstadt is an epic drama about a large family of assimilated Jews living in Vienna. A number of them have intermarried. One has even become Catholic. The play opens in 1899 as the family celebrates Christmas and ends in 1955 when Leo Chamberlain (né Leopold Rosenbaum) a 24-year-old survivor who writes humorous books, revisits Vienna and finds out more about his family history than he had bargained for.

In the acts between we see the family in moments that are funny and foolish, endearing and embarrassing. They celebrate Passover. They prepare for a briss that may or may not happen. Someone has an affair. There is a duel that does not happen. But it is the penultimate scene, when the Nazis arrive to humiliate and evict the family from their last refuge, forcing them to return to the old Jewish ghetto, Leopoldstadt, that becomes the pivotal moment in the play. 

Along with many other Viennese Jews, this family is part of the cultural, intellectual and financial core of Vienna. They hang out with Brahms and Klimt, who is painting a portrait of one of their Christian wives. And because these people are Jewish there’s a lot of talk. They discuss anti-Semitism, assimilation, Zionism, politics, music and psychoanalysis. They don’t talk about sports.

There are 38 characters in Leopoldstadt. Even with a large cast there is considerable doubling of roles. And despite Patrick Marber’s capable direction and the uniformly excellent acting, often it’s difficult to untangle their relationships. Is this person a brother or brother-in-law? Is he Jewish or Christian? Who are his children? After a while one gives up and just watches, intrigued and engaged despite the confusion.

Richard Hudson’s sumptuous set and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s elegant costumes, however, leave no doubt about time and place. This is Vienna at the height of its glory before its citizens welcome the Anschluss with Nazi flags and Heil Hitlers. 

Stoppard is not coy about the autobiographical or confessional nature of his play. Leo, he says, “speaks for me… his tears are my tears.” After seeing Leopoldstadt they may also be ours.

Leopoldstadt is at the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48 Street.
Photography: Joan Marcus