When seeing a Tom Stoppard play, one expects to be intellectually dazzled, if not emotionally devastated. That changes with “Leopoldstadt,” now getting its U.S. premiere at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre, which magnificently succeeds at both challenging the brain and piercing the heart. (So yes, it’s worth the sometimes-painful effort to sit for two-plus hours without intermission.)
Directed with a keen eye and ear by fellow playwright Patrick Marber, this semi-autobiographical play spans over 50 years in the lives of an upper-class Austrian Jewish family, whom we first meet in the elegant apartment of Grandma Emilia (the invaluable Betsy Aidem) in turn-of-the-century Vienna on Christmas Day 1898.
We watch as they individually argue about current-day mathematics, music and psychology, ruminate about forgetting faces from the past, and debate the need for having a separate Jewish state. Sadly, we also realize that, collectively, they have no idea what the future will have in store for some of them – and their descendants -- just a few decades later (even as we immediately suspect otherwise).
We also quickly learn that two of these extended family members have married out of the religion, most notably, eldest son Hermann (a superb David Krumholtz) – wed to the enchanting shiksa Gretl (a beguiling Faye Castelow) -- who has also gone as far as to renounce his Judaism completely.
A wealthy merchant, Hermann believes that complete “assimilation” into Viennese high society will make others forget his roots; it is enough, he states, to merely be Austrian. Unsurprisingly, he discovers, more than once, that he couldn’t be more wrong about his assumption. Indeed, the most salient message of “Leopoldstadt” is that one’s identity can be fudged, renamed or even hidden, but it can never be erased.
As the play flows through the decades, making an all-too-painful stop in November 1938, the commitment of the large, top-notch cast-- especially through scenes that must be as difficult to act as they are to watch -- never wavers. They are an inspiration.
First among equals, though, is Brandon Uranowitz, who is simply spectacular in the show’s shattering final segment, set in 1955. Unlike earlier, he’s no longer playing the intellectual mathematician Ludwig, but is now portraying Ludwig’s embittered and emotionally scarred great-nephew Nathaniel.
Back at that same apartment we first saw in 1898, Nathaniel is reconnecting with his often-sardonic, much older cousin Rosa (a superb Jenna Augen, almost channeling Fran Lebowitz) and his handsome younger cousin Leo (the excellent Arty Froushan), who was raised primarily in England with his mother Nellie (Tedra Millan) and non-Jewish stepfather, Percy Chamberlain (Seth Numrich).
Much to Nathaniel’s disdain, Leo – who seems as British as Queen Elizabeth II -- has never questioned much about his ethnic background. Moreover, he initially claims to remember nothing of that fateful night back in 1938 (when he was just 8), while its events are clearly burned into his cousin’s memory – a disparity that further enrages Nathaniel.
“No one is born eight years old,” he screams at his cousin. “Leonard Chamberlain’s life is Leo Rosenbaum’s life continued. His family is your family. But you live as if without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you.”
Soon enough, shadows are thrown. History is recounted. Tears are shed. Life is both darkened and illuminated. And yet, as Stoppard learned personally, life goes on.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Jesse Aaronson, Betsy Aidem, Jenna Augen, Japhet Balaban, Faye Castelow, Corey Brill, Daniel Cantor, Erica Dasher, Eden Epstein, Gina Ferrall, Arty Froushan, Charlotte Graham, Jacqueline Jarrold, Sarah Killough, David Krumholtz, Caissie Levy, Colleen Litchfield, Tedra Millan, Aaron Neil, Seth Numrich, Anthony Rosenthal, Chris Stevens, Sara Topham, Brandon Uranowitz, Dylan Wallach, Reese Bogin, Max Burach, Michael Deaner, Romy Fay, Pearl Scarlett Gold, Jaxon Cain Grundleger, Wesley Holloway, Ava Michele Hyl, Joshua Satine, Aaron Shuf, Drew Ryan Squire
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