Leopoldstadt is British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard’s absorbing drama of the rise and fall of a prominent, assimilated Viennese Jewish family beginning just before the turn of the 20th century.
The production is a taped recording by Britain’s National Theater before a life audience in London’s West End. It follows the shifting fates of the extended family of Austrian industrialist Herman Merz and his Catholic wife, Gretl, in four pivotal scenes beginning just before Christmas in 1899 and ending ten years after the World War II in 1955.
The setting is the richly furnished drawing room of the luxury apartment in Leopoldstadt, the fashionable neighborhood in central Vienna where the family meets to confront the changing tides of history. Central to that is how each sees their identity as a Jew and how their Jewish heritage is shaped successively by the events of World War I, the rise in the1920s of right-wing anti-Semitic nationalism in Austria and Germany, and ultimately the destruction of the Holocaust and its aftermath.
Stoppard has crammed the early scenes of the film with snatches of wit, philosophy, and sophisticated asides that some may find hard to keep up with at times, particularly if you find it difficult to follow the sharp British accents of the cast members. But in Leopoldstadt, the play is ultimately the thing and in the hands of director Patrick Marber the flow of the drama and its absorbing characters soon make you forgot that this is more than just two hours of dramatic dialogue. To catch all the nuances of this work you may want to buy an extra ticket.
Stoppard has hinted that the play may be his last work. At 85, Stoppard, who was born Jewish as Tomas Straussler in Czechslovakia in 1937, has put much of himself in this work. All four of his grandparents died in the Holocaust.
Even with the price of two admissions to the AJFF, this masterwork by Britain’s most famous living playwright is a bargain.