Stoppard play is too big and icy

A grandmother makes a depressing observation early on in Tom Stoppard’s latest play “Leopoldstadt,” which opened Sunday night on Broadway.

Staring mournfully at an old photograph, she says, “Here’s a couple waving goodbye, but who are they? It’s like a second death, to lose your name in a family photo album.”

That hard truth really stings in Stoppard’s creaky though sporadically moving drama that has arrived in New York from London. 

Theater review

2 hours and 10 minutes with no intermission. At the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street.

“Leopoldstadt” depicts a wealthy Viennese Jewish family enduring the turbulent years between 1899 and 1955, and that picture remark resonates powerfully as to the unspeakable damage done by World War I, World War II and the Holocaust, which rocks the play’s tight-knit clan as time goes on.

The devastating new documentary “Three Minutes: A Lengthening,” similarly, is about a recently discovered reel of film that is the only evidence that thousands of murdered Jewish residents of a small Polish town ever lived. Many of their names, even so, are lost to time.

The pages of Stoppard’s drama, loosely inspired by the British playwright’s own family, slowly flip like a hefty fading photo album, too, and while that strikes an appropriate tone it also creates a theatrical problem. When we arrive at the shattering ending scene — a paralyzing moment of repressed memory and confronting the past — we’ve forgotten half of the people we met along the way. 

“Leopoldstadt” takes place over five decades in Vienna, Austria.
Joan Marcus

Characters do not develop in “Leopoldstadt” so much as make cameo appearances or, if we do see them again, apply a bit of old-age makeup and adjust their voices to be gravelly. They are not compellingly human.

There is simply too much sprawl here for a just-over-two-hour runtime to contain, and there are so many lofty aims that don’t cohesively gel.

Stoppard explains the societal complacency and changing political tides that allowed Nazism to overtake Austria and Europe; his voice boxes debate the founding of Israel; they question why somebody would abandon their Jewish identity and convert to Catholicism before the risk to their life was obvious; and he still finds some air to provide an exhaustive family history (growing family trees are projected, but we don’t process them). And, of course, being Stoppard there are plenty of intellectual spats and chatter about math scattered throughout.

All that cramming leads to a drama that is, for the most part, cold and clammy until it gains some heat near the end. The writer has jammed politics, innovative devices and the passage of time together before, in plays such as “Arcadia” and “Rock n Roll,” that were far more satisfying because there were fewer stories and names to keep track of.

"Leopoldstadt" could mark British playwright Tom Stoppard's final play.
“Leopoldstadt” could mark British playwright Tom Stoppard’s final play.
Joan Marcus

Director Patrick Marber’s production on Richard Hudson’s set is grand and handsome — a Christmas party (yes, you read right) could almost be swapped for the start of “The Nutcracker.” The acting, often a cacophony of twenty people talking is quick succession, is all over the map.

Because the show is written by a Brit and began in London, these Austrians speak in an English accent. So the UK actors who are reprising their roles — the sensational Faye Castelow as Gretl; authoritative Aaron Neil as Ernst, enjoyably petulant Arty Froushan as Fritz and Leo and the soulful Jenna Augen as Wilma and Rose — fare far better than their American cohorts, most of whom can’t do the dialect. Brandon Uranowitz, as Ludwig the mathematician; Caissie Levy as Eva; and David Krumholtz as Hermann the patriarch feel like they’re on a different continent. Krumholtz, at least, has an old-world clenched-fist quality about him.

You will neither regret seeing “Leopoldstadt” nor be wholly thrilled by the experience. A finer American play, “Prayer for the French Republic” by Joshua Harmon, confronted many of these same profound themes last year off-Broadway: The horrors of ethnonationalism ravaging the home somebody loves, and the cruel tug-of-war between staying put or leaving. It similarly spanned World War II and the present day. Harmon’s show hit harder, however, because it did so with intimacy, fleshed-out people, passion and warmth.

It brought those old photos to heart-wrenching life.

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