Updated: Nov 27
OF LAUGHTER AND TEARS
Theatre season in New York is blooming. Two performances in particular, Kimberly Akimbo and Leopoldstadt, continue to attract the attention of critics and wider audiences. We have covered them both in Polish and, since they have successfully extended their run - Kimberly Akimbo until June 11th and Leopolstadt until July 1st - we decided to reach out to our potential English-speaking readers. In the long run we’d love to present the blog in a bilingual edition. From time to time, we already incorporate the news and general write-ups in English and we're proud of our regular “between-the-language” posts. So here is an updated English version of the reviews. Hope you enjoy, and if you do, please share with your friends.
Kimberly Akimbo; Laughter at the Edge of Darkness
In one of the scenes at the beginning of the play, lights go up on a minimalistic stage set.
A row of blue lockers clearly defines the space: we’re in a school’s coatroom or hallway. Teens leave their backpacks and jackets, grab their notebooks and hurry to class. Momentarily, we’ll hear the bell and the bustling chatter of young voices. In this short interval of silence, a sliver of privacy: two kids share a word. Their casual and expansive gestures are simultaneously self-conscious. They turn toward each other like sunflowers toward the sun, drawn by mutual curiosity and need, but they’re also childishly intimidated and unsure – maybe the other person is just being polite and isn't interested at all.
As Kim and Seth delicately orbit each other, we witness theater’s magic. In Kimberly Akimbo by David Lindsay-Abaire with music by Jeanine Tesori, this magic is three-part.
The first is Victoria Clark’s inventive and charismatic on-stage presence. Kimberly Levaco is affected by an extremely rare genetic condition, whereby a small DNA mix-up, one mutated protein, causes the body to age at an accelerated pace from infancy. In just a few years, muscles atrophy, skin dries and wrinkles, and the heart weakens. Those suffering of Progeria must quickly learn to look mortality straight in the eyes; nobody with the disease has lived longer than 16. And, as it happens, Kim’s sixteenth birthday is just around the corner. Every dimension of Kim’s old-young soul needs to be projected with care and, through her masterful and multilayered performance, Clark does just that. At first glance, we see an adult woman - already some ways along life’s winding path; Clark is 63 and performs with minimal make-up. And yet, by reaching for her voice somewhere deep in her breast, toying with her gaze, stepping lightly and slouching her shoulders, Clark transforms adulthood into the naïve grace of youth.
Secondly, Clark found an excellent partner in Justin Cooley, the elegant 19-year-old newcomer from Texas making his Broadway debut. Seth has likewise experienced tragedy and has learned to care for himself; his mother passed away early on and his father is lost in a haze of helpless despair. In Cooley’s rendition, Seth inspires trust. He is open and innocent, as if he finds consolation for his loss and loneliness in the goodness of his heart.
Thirdly, Clark and Cooley utilize the varied repertoire and their compelling musical talents to build an authentic relationship before our eyes. We believe in their budding mutual interest. We root for them as they weave a thread of understanding and connection. We hope that the support system they build for each other will shield them from bitterness and disappointment. The beautiful duet, “Anagram,” marks the beginning of their shared path:
I like the way you see the world
I like your point of view
a little sly, a little strange
a little bit askew
I like the way you look at life
and think outside the facts
a little odd, a little off
a bit unorthodox
With lyrical tenderness, Lindsey-Abaire and Tesori tell the story of two young people forced by life's difficult circumstances to mature before their years. In fact, they behave with a maturity well beyond that of any of the adults in their world. And they succeed in animating something invisible but real, creating a powerful bond not despite but, rather, as a result of their differences.
Kim and Seth's individual drama is placed in the context of the boisterous dynamics of teenage life. Four of Kim and Seth's classmates: Delia, Martin, Teresa, and Aaron, dance a quadrille of attraction and misunderstandings. They study and play, love and tease, work and misbehave, all within predictable boundaries. Predictable, that is, until Kim’s aunt, Debra (the extravagant Bonnie Milligan), carries the teenagers’ scenes into the realm of surrealistic exaggeration. Debra is incorrigibly amoral, tends to operate through illegal shortcuts, and abides by her shameless egotism. She enlists the youngsters in her crazy check-laundering scheme, and the improbable criminal enterprise offers an absurdist counterpoint to Kim and Seth’s friendly-romantic relationship.
The play strikes a darker note in a different layer of family dynamics. Kim’s mother is a hypochondriac, hopelessly focused on her own needs. Kim’s father is equally irresponsible, seeking solace in alcohol and isolation. It’s hard to find humor in the family scenes, and the musical stumbles in trying to blur the emotional impact of the adults’ ineptitude through caricature. There is authentic cruelty in these parents, who think more of themselves than of their daughter, when they rearrange her bedroom in a rush of anticipation for a second child. It’s hard to forgive Kim’s father, who forgets in alcoholic stupor, to pick her up from the ice-skating rink or gives her tickets for her dream trip to Great Adventure, only for Kim to discover that they are long expired.
Yes, Kim stands tragically, prematurely, face to face with death. But the play’s saddest moments aren’t defined by that inevitable end waiting around the corner. Somehow, it’s easier to make peace with that enormous tragedy; after all, everyone must meet death someday. The real sadness is in those smaller losses along the way. It’s heartbreaking to watch Kimberly casually fill in a Make-A-Wish form. She sings boisterously I want to walk in heels…. I want to go to New Zealand… She asks for “a treehouse.” She asks for “a trip to see the world.” But in an aside, Kim confesses what she really wants is to eat a regular “home-cooked meal” and sit together with her family around the table, chatting about the day.
At the core of this complicated musical is its unusual protagonist, who confronts mortality with stoic wisdom. The shadows of death and irresponsibility are illuminated by Kimberly’s generosity of spirit, the scars of cruelty softened by her kindness. In one of her interviews, Victoria Clark beautifully sums it up, stressing how in her preparations for and execution of this demanding role she focused on tenderness and kindness:
A lot of this journey for me has been turning some of that kindness
inward and learning from this character how to overcome obstacles.
Part of what is challenging for me is remembering that this is a show
about living, not dying. It's a piece about fortitude. Kimberly has
taught me a lot about that.
Justin Cooley (Seth Weetis) / Victoria Clark (Kimberly Levaco)
Bonnie Milligan (Aunt Debra) & cast / Kimberly's bedroom
On the road
Photos by Joan Marcus
Leopolstadt; History’s Noise
Tom Stoppard’s plays, which race along at a lively tempo and crackle with fast-paced dialogue, have enjoyed unparalleled success for over half a century. They seduce us with the promise of simultaneously entertaining and teaching, suggesting that unplumbed depths lie beneath the surface of their elegance and wit. Stoppard first won wider attention in 1966 with his tragicomedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead , an absurdist spin on the two secondary characters from Hamlet. Travesties (1974), set in Zurich in 1917, recalls a complicated historical moment, where James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Lenin’s paths cross. In Arcadia (1993), characters negotiate the Laws of Thermodynamics, Byron’s poetry, and the styling of English gardens – all in the idyllic setting of a country manor house. The Coast of Utopia trilogy (2002) gives a kaleidoscopic overview of 19th-century Russian radicals and the spectrum of their debates. These plays' special attraction lies in their capacity to draw us into brilliant political-philosophical discourse, while permitting to maintain an emotional distance. Cleverer for our hindsight from those on stage, we share a laugh at their expense.
Stoppard’s new play, Leopoldstadt, has a more somber tone and reaches for higher stakes than merely the last word in an intellectual game. It is impressive in its epic breadth and Dickensian multitude of narrative threads, which require a cast of forty. It is less convincing in its overall impact, tilting instead towards sentimental appeal.
The Merz family’s fate is the canvas on which the dramatic arc takes shape. Members of this extended family come from the eastern frontiers of the Austrian empire. Some still whiff of the remote Galician provinces. Others are firmly rooted among Vienna’s bourgeoisie. Wealthy, well-educated, and well-connected beyond the Jewish community, they move comfortably in wider societal circles. Hermann Merz (David Krumholtz), a successful businessman, converts to Catholicism to marry Gretl (Faye Castelow), a beautiful Viennese woman. Ludwig Jakobovicz (Brandon Uranowitz) is a math professor at the university; he dreams of proving Riemann’s famous hypothesis and prizes a private copy of “La Ronde,” inscribed by its author, Arthur Schnitzler. His sister Wilma (Jenna Eugen), is married to Ernest (Aaron Neil), a Protestant professor of medicine. At their family gatherings, they discuss Herzl, Marx, and Freud. They're familiar with Mahler and Schoenberg's newest music. When Hermann wants a portrait of Gretl, he commissions Gustav Klimt, the most fashionable of the Viennese painters.
We first meet the Merz-Jakobovicz clan at the turn of the century – in 1899, at a Christmas party. At the center of this elegant gathering is the family matriarch, Grandma Emilia (Betsy Aiden), and we appreciate the dignified composure with which she carries herself. She regards Hermann’s baptism with skepticism but welcomes his wife warmly to the family fold. As her grown children’s paths diverge, it falls to her to weave them together anew, to reinforce the essential “cat’s cradle” structure of family connections.
In a series of fast-paced episodes, we get to know a few members of her clan better. We begin to recognize their personal characteristics and the dynamics of specific relationships. We listen to Hermann Merz arguing with his brother-in-law Ludwig over Herzl’s radical propositions and the viability of a Jewish state in Palestine. In another pairing, marked by female solidarity, we hear Ludwig’s younger sister, Hanna (Colleen Litchfield), telling Gretl of her encounter and fascination with Fritz (Arty Froushan), a handsome Austrian cavalry officer. In a dramatic twist, Gretl and Fritz's amorous scene redirects our attention to themes of betrayal and dangerous desire. Subsequently, Fritz and Hermann’s duet presents a different confrontation: of power and manly pride, honor and humiliation.
The second act, set in the spring of 1900, highlights the role of ritual which, despite individual religious differences, establishes the framework of a familial community. The scene in which the family meets to celebrate Pesach and the birth of Hermann’s niece is highly crafted and stylized. Under Patrick Marber’s direction, this production’s scenography (Richard Hudson), costume design (Brigitte Reiffenstuel), lighting (Neil Austin) and precise choreography (Emily Jane Boyle) are triumphant: vivid in detail and evocative. The hymn-mantra of Hebrew prayer transforms into a magical dance, in praise of life, forgiveness, and mutual love.
In the third act, set in 1924, the narrative accelerates and acquires dangerous momentum. The heightened drama, however, comes at a cost: we can no longer delve into personal matters, individual plot lines blur and names get tangled. Who is this attractive young woman – whose sister or whose daughter? Why is she flirting so brazenly, almost desperately, with a visitor – a total stranger, of whom we know only that he runs a "gentile bank?" The people have gathered for a family celebration, the newest member’s bris, but everyone’s attention seems to be diverted elsewhere. Hermann is busy with his plans to transfer his entire business to his son, Jacob. Jacob, who returned crippled from the Great War, is lost in his thoughts; bitter and disillusioned, he mourns his cousin Pauli, who didn’t return from the trenches at all. Nellie (what’s her place in the family’s pyramid?) sews a red flag in the living room, preparing to take part in the Communist demonstration. A servant comes in and out with a tray of cookies. Someone mixes up the banker with the mohel, who arrives for the bris. Laughter and loud dance music underscore the general quid pro quo.
In the fourth act, set in 1938, History steps on stage, literally and figuratively. Literally, History appears in the person of Civilian (Corey Brill), who is accompanied by two policemen. The nameless blond man in a trench coat embodies the monstrosities of Nazism. Ruthless and cruel, Civilian humiliates each of those gathered in the Merz’s living room and orders everyone to leave the house immediately. Figuratively, History announces her entrance with the sound of broken glass, an echo of the Kristallnacht, and overshadows everybody on stage with well-known documentary photos projected on large screens. History’s noise mutes individual voices. Characters lose their personality, and one family’s specific story becomes a symbolic representation for the History of Viennese Jews.
The play's dramatic variation, which vacillates between genres, accentuates its disunity as a whole. The first act is a warm parlor comedy with a degree of ironic distance à la Oscar Wilde. The second is a kind of moving elegy and ritual rebirth. The third approaches an exaggerated farce. The fourth takes the tone of a Greek tragedy. The fifth and final act, set in 1955 in the Merz’s deserted apartment, adds an intimate coda focused on self-discovery and psychological tension. Its protagonist, Leo "Lenny" Chamberlain (Arty Froushan), is a young newcomer from London, who comes to Vienna for a casual visit with his distant relatives. The startling overlap between his story and the author’s own transforms the play into autobiographical drama.
Stoppard’s parents were Czech Jews who, at the outset of the World War II, found temporary haven for themselves and their two sons in Singapore. Just before the Japanese invasion, mother and children evacuated to Darjeeling while father remained in Singapore to serve as an army doctor. Later, after the news of her husband’s death, Stoppard’s mother married a British officer who adopted the boys, gave them an Anglo-Saxon surname and educated them in England. Tomáš Sträusster became Tom Stoppard, growing up with only a fragmented knowledge of his mother’s history and a vague awareness of his Jewish heritage.
In the play’s culminating scene, Leo speaks with Rosa (Jenna Eugen), who arrives from New York, and with Nathan (Brandon Uranowitz), who survived Auschwitz and returns to Vienna. Through them he learns that his last name was originally Rosenbaum, and that, as a descendant of Ludwig's, he's a member of the Merz-Jakobovicz family. His English nickname, “Lenny,” as it turns out, is in fact short for Leopold. The entire multistoried pyramid is flipped on its head and placed on Leo’s shoulders. The shock knocks him from his arrogant complacency and, prodded by Rosa and Nathan, he “remembers” playing with his cousins in the very apartment he is now visiting, though he didn't grow up in Vienna.
The play’s title therefore does not refer to Vienna’s historic Jewish ghetto; the Merz family never lived there. Hermann's elegant apartment was near Ringstrasse, in the center of Vienna. Instead, Leopoldstadt is a lost arcadia, real and imagined – in Vienna or Paris, in Warsaw or Vilnus. It’s Leo’s personal family album.
Translated by Nicolas Vivas Nikonorow
Japhet Balaban (Otto) and Eden Epstein (Hermine) / Tedra Millan (Nellie) and Seth Numrich (Percy Chamberlain) / Corey Brill (Civilian) and Anthony Rosenthal (Young Nathan)
Photos by Joan Marcus
Kimberly Akimbo, based on the play by David Lindsay-Abaire (2000), with book and lyrics by Davida Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed byJessica Stone; music director: Chris Fenwick; choreography: Danny Mefford; scenic design: David Zinn; costume design: Sarah Laux; lighting design: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; sound design: Kai Harada; video design: Lucy Mackinnon. With Steven Boyer (Buddy), Victoria Clark (Kimberly), Justin Cooley (Seth), Alli Mauzey (Pattie), Bonnie Milligan (Debra), and Olivia Elease Hardy (Delia), Fernell Hogan (Martin), Michael Iskander (Aaron), Nina White (Teresa). Performance through June 11, at the Booth Theatre 222 W. 45th St., near Times Square.
• Bonnie Milligan „Better”: https://youtu.be/0cK0bREs_B8
• First Look: https://youtu.be/7dLazx9WbOU
• Anagram: https://youtu.be/lj2XAKRIG74
Tom Stoppard, Leopoldstadt. Directed by Patrick Marber; scenic design: Richard Hudson; costume design: Brigitte Reiffenstuel; lighting design: Neil Austin; sound design & original music: Adam Cork; projection design: Isaac Madge; movement: Emily Jane Boyle. With: Betsy Aidem (Grandma Emilia), Jenna Augen (Wilma/Rosa), Japhet Balaban (Otto, a banker) Corey Brill (Civilian), Faye Castelow (Gretl), Eden Epstein (Hermine), Gina Ferral (Poldi), Arty Froushan (Fritz/Leo), David Krumholtz (Hermann), Tedra Millan (Nellie), Aaron Neil (Ernst), Seth Numrich (Jacob/Percy), Sara Topham (Jana/Sally), Brandon Uranowitz (Ludwig/Nathan) et al. Performances through July 1, at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., near Times Square.