In November 1938, in Vienna, life chez Merz — the reciting of books, the games of cat’s cradle, the polished renditions of Haydn at the piano — proceeds with only brief interruptions despite the nearby sounds of broken glass. But then comes the rap at the door. The pianist, Hanna (Colleen Litchfield), goes to answer it and hastily returns.
“Trouble,” she hisses.
With that one word, the hinge of history swings open upon the abyss.
It is also the word that turns “Leopoldstadt,” the harrowing new Tom Stoppard play that opened on Sunday at the Longacre Theater, from a domestic comedy into a Greek drama. What had been until then a loving portrait of Austrian Jewish bourgeois society in the years before the Anschluss — the play begins in 1899 and will follow the family through 1955 — becomes, as the Nazis enter not just the Merzes’ homeland but their home, a portrait of that society’s self-delusion. The cosmopolitan, intermarried and profoundly cultured clan, given less than a day to pack for a future most will not survive, finally understands that, for Jews, history has no hinge; the abyss is always open.
Whether complacency is a moral failing, as “Leopoldstadt” seems to argue, is a vexing question. In the play’s first three acts — it has five, each set in a different year and performed without intermission over the course of 2 hours and 10 minutes — Stoppard posits the Merzes, and their relatives-by-marriage, the Jakoboviczes, as golden examples of assimilation. Hermann Merz (David Krumholtz), the wealthy businessman in whose apartment near the fashionable Ringstrasse the story unfolds, has even converted to Catholicism as a kind of insurance. One of the always ambient children is confused enough about the distinctions between Jew, gentile and Austrian to top the family’s Christmas tree with a Star of David.
Austrian gentiles are not confused, though. Antisemitic slights and violence are frequent enough that even the Merzes take notice. In 1899, the adults are already arguing the merits of Theodor Herzl’s plans for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But all signs, at least the cultural ones valued by the bourgeoisie, point to progress. Brahms has visited their home; Mahler, though “wet from his baptism,” is still “our man.” Klimt is painting Hermann’s wife, Gretl (Faye Castelow). And the playwright Arthur Schnitzler has inscribed a private copy of “La Ronde” to Hermann’s brother-in-law, Ludwig (Brandon Uranowitz), a mathematician being analyzed by Freud.
As Stoppard flips through this Rolodex of Viennese machers, you may recognize his trademark bravura: tossing you into the deep end of his imagination, trusting that you’ll eventually surface. In this case, it’s a very deep end: By my count, 31 characters appear in “Leopoldstadt,” 24 of them members of the extended Merz-Jakobovicz clan. Even if you’ve studied the family tree available on the play’s website, it’s impossible keep them sorted when they themselves are confused. “She’s my … my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law,” Gretl ventures of Hanna. “I think.”
But just when you fear you know too little, you realize you actually know too much. In “Leopoldstadt,” Stoppard takes dramatic irony — the audience’s grasp of what the characters cannot see — to such an extreme that it becomes the subject itself. It applies here not only to tangled relationships and romantic betrayals but to the larger tangles and betrayals of fate; if you’ve heard of Kristallnacht, you will be waiting for that rap on the door and wondering, perhaps unfairly, why the Merzes aren’t. But it’s mostly hindsight that has taught us what happened to Viennese Jews of that vintage.
That we remain in suspense anyway is partly the effect of Stoppard’s kaleidoscopic technique, seducing us with manifold pleasures like that boisterous Christmas party in 1899, a polyphonic Passover in 1900, a farcical circumcision in 1924. Much as he has done in earlier plays with the metaphysical juggling acts of poets, revolutionaries and philosophers, he arranges the domestic affairs of these bourgeois characters into highly detailed and glittering patterns, like snowflakes seen under a magnifying glass.
But “Leopoldstadt” is not quite as tightly constructed as “Arcadia,” say, or “Jumpers” or “Travesties”; it has too many themes to wrangle, and some dense historical exposition is unconvincingly disguised as small talk. As such, the play leans more than usual on a handsome, foreboding, smartly calibrated production. The acting is excellent across the board, with too many standouts to name. The director Patrick Marber’s deep-focus staging keeps all the stories going at once on a set by Richard Hudson that fairly gleams with honeyed smugness under Neil Austin’s lights. And Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes make you long for the elegance of prewar fashions until you are brought up short by remembering what happened to those who wore them.
Even without any overt violence, the Kristallnacht scene, with its shiny blond monster calling the Jewish children a “litter,” is thus brutal, wiping away all the beauty in seconds. But the play’s argument and its likely source in Stoppard’s own life does not really emerge until the scene that follows, set in 1955. It is then, as Vienna prepares to open its new postwar opera house with an ex-Nazi on the podium, that we are explicitly asked to consider the connected problems of historical memory and premonition. Is it a corollary of the warning that we must never forget the Holocaust that we must always expect it again?
Stoppard, no doubt noting the resurgence of antisemitism today, seems to argue for that, painting complacency as a kind of hubris. In the play’s cosmology, more unforgivable than its shiny blond monsters is a callow 24-year-old Jakobovicz family survivor — he too is blond — we meet in this final act. Born Leopold Rosenbaum, he is now called Leo Chamberlain, having adopted the last name of his English stepfather because his mother, he says, “didn’t want me to have Jewish relatives in case Hitler won.” Leo (Arty Froushan) has written two “funny books” and is so ignorant of those Jewish relatives that one of them, a second cousin who survived the camps, cannot hold his tongue. “You live as if without history,” he spits, “as if you throw no shadow behind you.”
This is not autobiography, but it’s close enough. Tom Stoppard was born Tomáš Sträussler, in Czechoslovakia, receiving his new last name just as Leo does, from an English stepfather. He started writing his first funny plays in his early 20s. He came very late to a full understanding of his Jewishness, including the murders of family members in Nazi death camps. You need not equate him exactly with his stand-in to see that in “Leopoldstadt,” by punishing Leo for his belatedness, he is punishing himself for his own.
The last scene is thus a strange one: powerful, painful and masochistic by implication. But I was left wondering whom its argument was meant for. There are of course people who do not believe the Holocaust happened; I doubt they will see the play.
And then there are those in no danger of forgetting, for whom the names of the camps, as intoned in the final moments are as ingrained as the hypnotic babble of grief we call the Mourner’s Kaddish.
That leaves only those who live in the bubble in between, who both know and don’t know. Stoppard seems to place himself there, along with the Merzes, whose refusal to believe the worst led them directly to it.
As I would surely have done no better in their circumstances, I cannot bring myself to blame any of them. Not even Tomáš Sträussler. But the uncommonly bitter and personal focus in that final scene makes the play feel a bit unstable, teetering like an upside-down pyramid on its smallest point. “Leopoldstadt” is at its best not in instructing us how we must mourn a lost world but in bringing it lovingly back to life.
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