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‘Leopoldstadt’ brings Jewish history to haunted life

Leopoldstadt (Longacre Theatre, booking until January 29, 2023) is literally a memory game. On Richard Hudson’s ornate, beautifully designed Broadway stage is a room of a grand Viennese apartment, and in that room the story of two intermarried Jewish families – the Merz-Jakoboviczes – told in fragments, some cheerful, many painful.

Sir Tom Stoppard’s powerful and beautifully written piece – its name is derived from the name of Vienna’s historic Jewish quarter – is a recovery of what has been variously extinguished, murdered and lost over a 56-year span from 1899 to 1955 The genius of Patrick Marber’s direction, aided by Hudson’s design and Neil Austin’s lighting, is that the piece flickers ethereally for us. It feels like we’re watching something beyond our own reach of time, like old bits of film found in a box and brought back to life, ghosts fluttering in front of us.

The actors are far from us, in the middle of the stage. This sense of literal distance makes everything so much more poignant in Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical play, which is about identity and history, about losing and rediscovering parts of ourselves, and necessarily confronting the truth of love, family and horror. In its broadest sense, the play questions what it means to be Jewish. Stoppard playfully explains his complex intentions in the beginning with the children in 1899 who put the Star of David on top of a Christmas tree.

Stoppard, like one of the characters in the play, discovered his own Jewish roots later in life, and we see a similar personal earthquake influencing one of the characters here, just as we see two recurring themes of Stoppard’s plays – art and mathematics. – play a central role in the swirling currents of family history. It’s hard to tell what happens in the play without spoiling the plot. The screen in front of the stage flashes images of the years the play is about and evolving family trees.

From the beginning of the play there is talk of Jewish children outgrowing old-fashioned relatives, of the first conceptions of a separate Jewish state (in Madagascar). Ernst (Aaron Neil) and Gretl (Faye Castelow) are both Gentile, married to Wilma (Jenna Augen) and Hermann (David Krumholtz) respectively. A portrait of Gretl and her whereabouts becomes the central motif of the piece – its outline is left on the back wall.

The hustle and bustle of a family Christmas is infectious as Hanna, Ludwig (Brandon Uranowitz) and Wilma’s sister contemplate a romance with a Viennese officer named Fritz (Arty Froushan). Grandma Emilia (Betsy Aidem) licks the whipped cream spoon, while the gossip swirls of Vienna as the cultural capital of the new century – and Jews as the multidisciplinary heartbeat of that cultural life. There is an excitement of novelty and possibility.

There is also the heavy imprint of the passage of time, and one of the central themes of the piece. Emilia writes faces in a scrapbook: “First, there is no need to write who they are, because everyone knows that that is Great Aunt Sophia or Cousin Rudi, and then only a few of us know, and we are already asking, ‘Who is Which? with Gertrude?’ and ‘I don’t remember this man with the little dog,’ and you don’t realize how quickly they fade from memory.’”

Wilma, the sister of her daughter’s husband, agrees. ‘It’s still a great thing for me to know the faces of the dead! I remember Grandpa Jakobovicz’s tobacco-stained whiskers, but his wife died giving birth to Poppa before there were any pictures, so no one knows what she looked like now, any more than if she had been some sort of rumor.”

It’s like a second death, to lose your name in a family album.

Emilia, ‘Leopoldstadt’

“Here’s a couple swinging from the train, but who are they?” says Emilia. “I don’t know. That’s why they’re waving goodbye. It’s like a second death, to lose your name in a family album.”

This small exchange summarizes the ambition of the piece. Even in the distant past, where today family members can be harassed by losing contact, people were tormenting much the same. Leopoldstadt, as it combines a tapestry of great themes of philosophy, violence, anti-Semitism and assimilation (one of the first protagonists becomes Catholic to prevent people from thinking he is Jewish), it is also a play about family, and about discovering and clearly state who people were and what happened to them. It is both an investigation and a discourse, a full-blooded drama, as well as a meditation on history, hatred, identity, survival and place – all themes with a resonance today.

The second act is set just a year later, featuring romance and the first outbursts of ugly anti-Semitism that will blossom most viciously with the rise of Nazism over more than two decades, and concludes with an emotional, elegiac Seder.

From here, time slips and creeps. In 1924 we see the effects of the war on some of the now grown children we saw in 1900. A bris is about to take place, a humorous sequence of moments played out for slapstick laughs. Nationalism is on the rise, but the family, now prosperous, feels safe and just as close and connected as it was twenty years ago.

In 1938 the room is bare, relatives young and old are lit by candlelight and wrapped in scarves. Illness and decline haunt the older members we have just seen as so young and alive. We, like the family, hear horrific screams and glass smashing outside. And then there’s a knock on the door. The Nazis have arrived. Kristallnacht.

A shocking, horrifying scene unfolds in the family apartment. It’s not gratuitous, but it will confuse you, and that fear is compounded by the emotional power of what Stoppard oversees in the play’s masterful final sequences in 1955. It’s, again, virtually impossible to write about. without spoiling the play – and this is a play that begs to be seen, and so this critic won’t – but three actors, Brandon Uranowitz (gorgeous throughout the play), Jenna Augen and Arty Froushan, are featured on left the stage to stitch together not only family mysteries but even basic identity as Froushan begins to understand who he is.

Stoppard writes with moving force about finding the truth about himself while understanding why that truth has been hidden for so long.

Here, Stoppard writes with moving force about finding the truth about himself while understanding why that truth has been hidden for so long. We see how and why people can flee from themselves and their identity, but never so far that you are ever completely out of sight of where you come from.

The piece does not condemn the actions people have taken in response to the horror that Nazism has brought upon them. Even in 1955, 1945, barely a decade later, we see the rush to forget, purge and even re-adjust the ugliness of Nazism in Austria, and how expendable Jewish lives and feelings were, even after all that they had endured (if indeed they had survived).

Leopoldstadt is a generous piece, and it’s mischievous too – willing to interrogate totems of history and identity, as well as make fun of them. A bit of comical familial ingenuity is one of the twists and turns of the play.

At the end of the piece there is a raw recitation of something very specific. The play has grown so far, because on stage in the characters we’ve seen, and in the depictions of family trees and historical photographs, the past seemed fleeting, the faces grainy and vanished in the blink of an eye.

What is happening, what is being said, the scene we see before us, in the last seconds of Leopoldstadt speaks not only of the urgent chorus of “Never forget”, but of something more specific. We must never forget these people, these very specific people, right in front of us and in our own history – the fluttering ghosts who not only died but lived.

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