A brief review of “Leopoldstadt” on Broadway

By | February 27, 2023

I am by no means a qualified theater critic, but I would like to offer a brief review of Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, which I saw yesterday at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway.

First, the incidentals. The theatre is lovely, the staff at the theatre are lovely, the sound system, lighting, and other production values are excellent, and the actors, including the child actors, perform their roles admirably and with conviction.

Having said all that… The play itself is a disappointment.

“Follow a Jewish family from the prelude through the aftermath of the Holocaust and dramatically demonstrate how many of them died,” has been done before. Any work which chooses to rehash this trope really needs to be stunningly good to overcome the cliché. Leopoldstadt doesn’t get there.

The bar is also high because the characters were not real historical figures. The Diary of Anne Frank is frankly not a great play, but any good production hits the audience right in the feels exactly because the people portrayed in it were real and the play is a very close portrayal of real events (or at least real events as depicted in Anne’s detailed diary). Going into Anne Frank, you know up-front that this really happened, and it makes you care about the characters from the first moment.

In contrast, because the characters in Leopoldstadt are fictional, the play bears the burden of convincing you to care about them enough to experience intense emotions about their suffering and deaths. There are too many characters and too little time to do that. This is another reason why Anne Frank is more successful: it has half as many primary characters as Leopoldstadt.

And now, a couple more incidentals.

1) Standing ovations, at least for Broadway performances, have become meaningless. Most of the orchestra section practically leapt to their feet at the beginning of the curtain call. The play was simply not good enough to justify that. My uncle claims that people are paying so much money for tickets that they need to believe the play was worth it to avoid feeling like fools, so they convince themselves that if it didn’t do it for them, it must be their fault rather than the play’s. Kind of a “the emperor has no clothes” type of thing. I don’t know if he’s right, but it’s certainly a plausible theory. I did not stand during the ovation; again, the play just wasn’t worth it. (By the way, every play at a K-12 school gets a standing ovation no matter what. If you don’t think that’s true you’re a monster, and if you don’t understand the difference you’re an idiot.)

2) I want to address the issue of attending a live theater performance during the COVID pandemic. This is the first time I have been in a public theater since the start of the pandemic. I stayed masked for the entire performance, and I also used Enovid immediately beforehand. There were signs and they made an announcement urging people to mask, and yet I’d say only about 5% of the audience was masked. This is not a risk I would normally take, but it was my elderly uncle’s birthday, he is a Broadway junkie who has not been since the start of the pandemic, he’s no longer physically capable of getting to the theater on his own, given the state of his he isn’t going to have many more opportunities, and the COVID numbers right now are as good as they’re going to get at least for the next few years. Given all these factors, I felt that taking my uncle to this performance was an acceptable addition to my personal risk profile. Most members of the audience do not have most of these excuses for not even wearing a fucking mask.

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