“Oh no, not The Nutcracker,” I moaned. The curtain had just gone up on the parlor of a Viennese family. The date is 1899. Excited children are decorating a large Christmas tree, grandparents and parents are trying to maintain some form of order, a cross-looking housekeeper is putting food on a long table, and a nursemaid is shushing an infant.
As the evening wears on the children play, the grownups talk and drink, and some of them get up and dance a little waltz—this is Vienna, after all. Everyone is dressed up for the occasion: I coveted one pair of tee-strapped glittery green shoes.
This was not, of course, the first act of the Tchaikovsky ballet, which we see in the Balanchine version every December here in Portland, but rather the first act of Tom Stoppard’s play Leopoldstadt, which I saw in April at New York’s Longacre Theatre. Leopoldstadt is the name of Vienna’s Jewish district, which officially existed as such until the Anschluss in 1938, when its residents were dispatched by the Nazis, many to Auschwitz. Few of those dispatched survived.
The Christmas tree is Stoppard’s clever way of telling us that the family in question—two, actually, related by marriage—is completely assimilated into Viennese culture. Even more clever is some dialogue in which one of the adults chides a child for putting a six-pointed star of David on top of the tree. “That’s a Jewish star,” she points out, not a Christian one. Later in this act, one father points out that his son had cried just as much at his circumcision as his baptism (more proof of assimilation), making me remember that both faiths historically condemned dancing as sinful.
Leopoldstadt is a family saga, Stoppard’s actually, although he is of Czech Jewish descent, not Austrian. It spans three generations and more than half a century of European history, and is spun out over five acts, lasting two hours, with no intermission. Most of it takes place in the family parlor. If it were a dance performance, which it isn’t, that format in my view would constitute audience abuse. Sitting for that long is hard on the body and can induce multiple, surreptitious glances at the time, a disservice to the performers and everyone else involved. I had wanted to see this play, which may be the 86-year-old Stoppard’s last, but I dreaded staying in place for such a long time.
I needn’t have worried. Except for some lengthy dialogues–especially one in this first act, about the intellectual scene in Vienna at the turn of the 19th century, in which Jews, such as Sigmund Freud, played extremely important roles–the play moves pretty rapidly. This is thanks in no small measure to the many children in the cast, and to movement coach Emily Jane Boyle. Boyle is also a choreographer, which I’m sure informed her coaching of the adult actors, who proved themselves to be enormously skilled at revealing their emotional state with their posture, the placement of their feet, the tilt of their head, and the gestures of their hands.
I saw this play more than a month ago, and while I’ve forgotten specific spoken lines, I still have burned in my brain many images from a play that made me laugh, and wince, and weep. Again, I write as a visually oriented dance critic, listing here some of those moments, not necessarily in the order in which they are performed:
- Brandon Uranowitz–who plays Ludwig, arguably the patriarch–eyes downcast, shoulders slumped in defeat as he’s told by his wife’s gentile military lover that he cannot challenge him to a duel, because he’s a Jew. The lover, incidentally, walks with the same aggressive swagger as the police who come to the family home in Act 3, 1938, to escort them out of the city.
- A film clip of German soldiers on the march in 1938, an image only too familiar to me, since it’s one my husband, an historian of 20th century Germany and one of the first to teach the Holocaust as a separate course, used as historical documentation.
- In the parlor again, in 1924, one sweet young thing dressed in flapper attire is dancing the Charleston while her sister? cousin?–in any case a much more serious person–is sewing a red banner: She’s a political activist, a Communist; that’s what red banners meant in Austria and Germany in the Twenties and Thirties.
- In 1938, two jackbooted cops and a bureaucrat in plainclothes have arrived at the home where the family still lives to evict them, purge them from the city. A young boy, bored, confused, sits wearily on the floor clutching a suitcase. His grandfather starts a game of cat’s cradle to distract him, and perhaps himself as well. (The cat’s cradle is a metaphor for their situation; they are caught. I also thought of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, in which he satirizes, darkly, the power of religion.) I think this is young Leo–it’s a large cast and it’s pretty difficult to keep track of who’s who. He hurts his hand playing the game, and starts to cry. Grandfather soothes him as he bandages the boy’s fingers.
- Also in this act, the beautiful, lively grandmother of the first act, now very ill and using a wheelchair, is brought at the insistence of the cops from her bedroom to the parlor. The family doctor appears carrying his bag, and she is saved from the fate of her family with a lethal injection. Or at least I thought she was, as I watched Uranowitz, wincing as he did it, administer the shot, and her body go limp in the wheelchair.
- Finally it is 1955, and Leo, a grown man, a British citizen and a writer, returns to Vienna and the family parlor, which by this time contains only a piano and a chair or two and perhaps a desk. Rosa, his American cousin, is there and another cousin named Nathan, played by Uranowitz. The three talk politely, like the strangers they are, and Leo asks what happened to the family. Nathan recites the list of names while Rosa says calmly, “Auschwitz,” “Auschwitz,” “Suicide,” “Auschwitz…”
Leo, who has been standing, collapses into a chair, breaking down in tears. Later, I thought of Martha Graham’s 1930 solo Lamentation, inspired in part by this quotation from the Old Testament’s Book of Lamentations: “How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people?”
The lights go dark, briefly, then come up again, and the ghosts of all these family members return, bathed in a golden light: The last thing we see is Grandfather, extending a hand to the smallest child as they exit, stage right.
Along with the rest of the audience I sat for a moment in stunned silence, and then was on my feet, cheering, calling bravo, which I almost never do after a dance performance (there are exceptions!).
Every one of the dozen children in the cast deserved those bravos, and it’s a shame that there is no Tony Award specifically for kids. Uranowitz has been nominated for best actor in a play; Brigitte Reiffenstuel for her gorgeous costume designs; Patrick Marber for best director of a play; Neil Austen for best lighting design of a play; Richard Hudson for best scenic design of a play; and Stoppard for best play. That nomination is controversial: Many critics find Leopoldstadt flawed, and have expressed considerable distaste for his “detachment.” I respect their opinion but I don’t agree with it.
I’ll be interested to see what the Tony Awards committee thinks, and fascinated to see what they choose to show from this play at the awards broadcast on June 11.
Also see Letter from New York: Broadway Gets (Some of) Its Mojo Back, Misha Berson’s pre-Tony Awards look for ArtsWatch at current shows including “Some Like It Hot,” “New York, New York,” “Fat Ham,” “Leopoldstadt,” “Good Night, Oscar,” and “Summer, 1976.”