LONDON — Do you remember? Don’t you remember? Can’t you remember? Why can’t you remember?
Variations on those unsettling words — both explicit and unspoken — echo through the wrenching final scene of Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt,” which opened Wednesday night at Wyndham’s Theater in London. They are addressed to a mid-20th century visitor to Vienna, a youngish, defensively British man of slipping poise who appears to have forgotten most of his early childhood.
But you could also argue that these questions have been posed, in a sustained murmur, from the very beginning of this richly embroidered portrait of Jewish life in Vienna in the early 20th century. They are questions aimed directly at us, the audience and, by extension, at a wider world conveniently prone to historical amnesia.
That would include, above all, the man who wrote this play.
A tone of instructional reproach is hardly a quality associated with Stoppard, whose six-decade career embraces a host of exuberantly cerebral plays, from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” (1967) to the time-traveling “Arcadia” (1993). But “Leopoldstadt,” which has been polished to a burnished sheen by the director Patrick Marber, holds a singular position in its author’s canon.
For starters, Stoppard, 82, has said this will probably be his last play. And, more than anything he has written (including his rueful “The Real Thing”), “Leopoldstadt” feels like an act of personal reckoning for its creator — with who he is and what he comes from. It’s not difficult to see “Leopoldstadt” as one man’s passionate declaration of identity as a Jew.
Judaism never figured conspicuously in Stoppard’s earlier work. For much of his life, he never thought of himself as Jewish. Born Tomas Straussler in a small town in Czechoslovakia in 1937, he grew up largely in Britain, taking the name of Stoppard from the Englishman his mother married after his father’s death.
As Stoppard writes in program notes for the play, his mother rarely spoke of her own history. It was only when a previously unknown Czech relative made contact with him in the 1990s that he learned about his mother’s family, many of whom had died during the Holocaust.
The image of a hand-printed family tree is prominent in “Leopoldstadt,” among the black-and-white projections and photographs that hover evanescently between scenes. For the record, it is not Stoppard’s family that is portrayed in the play, but a prosperous fictional Austrian clan in Vienna.
When the play begins, the family is assembled at the comfortably upholstered apartment occupied by the matriarchal Grandma Emilia Merz (Caroline Gruber) and her son, Hermann (Adrian Scarborough), who runs the family textile business. It is Christmas Day, 1899.
Yes, that holiday is being celebrated in this Jewish household, a commingling of traditions that finds droll expression when a child mistakenly tops the towering Christmas tree with a Star of David. For Hermann — whose wife, Gretl (Faye Castelow), is Catholic — cultural assimilation is a fait accompli as Austria moves into a new century.
Or is it? The group assembled before us may represent a sort of cosmopolitan melting pot, in which conversation touches on the latest play by Schnitzler, the painting of Klimt (for whom Gretl is posing), higher mathematics and the theories of Freud. (This is a Stoppard play.)
But as Hermann speaks of his hopes for future social and professional advancement, you sense insecurity pricking at his complacency (an uneasiness that is subtly and expertly conveyed by Scarborough, in the show’s most fully realized portrait).
That disquiet assumes dramatic form before the first act ends, when a romantic triangle — or quadrangle, depending on how you look at it (again, this is a Stoppard play) — forces anti-Semitic sentiment into the open. In the second act, with scenes set during the Depression that followed World War I and in 1938, on the eve of Austria’s incorporation into the Third Reich, that sentiment festers into full-blown, terrifying form.
Thus we watch the once-resplendent Merz household become increasingly shabby and bare, as what once felt like a familial fortress is transformed into a defenseless sanctuary. (Richard Hudson’s artfully evolving set is lighted in a sepia haze by the masterly Neil Austin, and images of the entire clan, posed as if for posterity, become a heartbreaking motif.) We are introduced to new generations of Merzes (in changing-times costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel), whose political allegiances and cultural tastes vary widely.
But being Jewish is no longer a choice for them, not in the age of National Socialism. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of European history will know what to expect when the family freezes at the sound of someone pounding on the door.
That does not make watching what follows any easier. In the final scene, in 1955, a man we had earlier met as a boy returns to the now abandoned apartment. Played by Luke Thallon, he is a successful writer of comic literature and, as far as he knows, a proper Englishman. It seems safe to say that he is a surrogate for Stoppard.
More than any previous Stoppard play — including the sprawling “Coast of Utopia” trilogy, a 9-hour dive into the Russian Revolution — “Leopoldstadt” is a group portrait, and one of uncommon density. (You will probably feel the need to consult the family tree in the program.) The 40-strong cast is, to a person, very good, and they embody their characters with spiky defining detail.
That they threaten to get lost in the play’s panoramic sweep is partly the point here. But it is also hard to avoid the impression that they exist as illustrative figures in an admonitory history lesson. There’s no denying that lesson’s emotional power, nor its frightening relevance in 2020, when anti-Semitic acts and language seem increasingly on the rise.
That means that although “Leopoldstadt” is set in the past, it is Stoppard’s most topical play. It is also his most conventional drama by far.
A writer who reliably bent time into pretzels in earlier works, Stoppard hews to a fully linear structure here. And while “Leopoldstadt” is replete, to the bursting point, with historical fact and political theory, it is mostly devoid of the intellectual jeux d’esprit that have been its creator’s signature. This may be the Stoppard play for people who don’t normally cotton to Stoppard.
It is as if the playwright felt that what he had to say here was too urgent to be filtered through his usual cerebral playfulness. The unreliability of memory, an abiding Stoppardian concern, is briefly flirted with in the final scene.
But ultimately, memory isn’t the capricious, fragmenting prism of classic Stoppard. Here, recollection is a laser, a tool to be focused on a past teeming with harsh and essential lessons for the present.
It seems fitting that, for once in a Stoppard work, words aren’t what leave the most lasting impression. It is instead the vision of people frozen as if for a photograph, beckoning with poignantly immediate life from a distant time before they dissolve into anonymous darkness. “Leopoldstadt” demands, with gravity and eloquence, that we never let those visions disappear.
LeopoldstadtAt Wyndham’s Theater, London; leopoldstadtplay.com.
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