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Brooklyn-based cast members of Broadway’s Leopoldstadt speak on Stoppard’s impact

November 8, 2022 Peter Stamelman
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Tom Stoppard’s new play “Leopoldstadt,” which is currently running at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway, is the most frankly autobiographical work of his illustrious career. It is a massive, sprawling play which features a cast of more than two dozen actors, with some playing dual roles. Three of those actors, Colleen Litchfield, Tedra Millan and Matt Harrington – who all happen to live in Brooklyn – gathered recently on an overcast Monday for a Zoom call conducted by the Eagle.

Set in Vienna, “Leopoldstadt” depicts four generations of two intermarried Jewish familes, the Merzes and the Jakoboviczes. We see the two families in 1899, 1900, 1924, 1938 and 1955.

The families’ comfortable lives are shattered by Nazism, the Holocaust, and the grim aftermath of counting the dead. It is a tremendously powerful evening of theater. Patrick Marber, the director, has done a masterful job of orchestrating all five periods.

Colleen Litchfield. Photo: Courtesy of Leopoldstadt Broadway

Colleen Litchfield (Cobble Hill), who plays Hanna Jacobovicz, is making her Broadway debut after doing regional theater and small roles on television. Tedra Millan (Prospect Heights) who plays Nellie Jacobovicz, made her Broadway debut opposite Keven Kline in “Present Laughter” and has since gone on to act in such acclaimed off-Broadway productions as “The Flick,” “On the Shore of the Wide World” and “The Wolves.” And Matt Harrington (Park Slope,), who performs dual roles in the play, was in the Broadway production of “Matilda the Musical” and has done Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III with the Old Globe company when those productions transferred to Broadway.

After some Zoom adjustments (their respective home wifi reception) I start by asking, given how sad and harrowing the play is, what do they do to avoid taking it home with them?

TEDRA: “It’s harrowing indeed. I share a dressing room with Colleen and Eden Epstein and I usually have a cup of tea and sometimes lie down after the performance. And I’m Jewish so the play feels very personal to me.

MATT: “Something Patrick Marber, our director, said to us toward the very end of our rehearsals. ‘You guys have been holding this story within yourselves, but soon you’ll be sharing it with an audience and things will get easier.’ And he was right”

COLLEEN: “It’s lacerating to do every night. I haven’t found a way to do the 1938 section of the play without a lot of tension. But the young children help out; they’re talking about ‘slip and slide’ and other games and they dispel some of the sadness. It’s always good to find the rest of the cast on the street afterwards. Sometimes we all go out for a bite. That helps.”

EAGLE: This is the first time doing Stoppard for all of you. Any special challenges?

TEDRA: “For me, the play is very Chekhovian.If you can help it, you don’t take a breath until you’ve finished speaking. It’s almost like Shakespeare in that sense. You must be very precise.

MATT: “It reminds me of doing Shaw; I think Stoppard is like Shaw in that he talks about big ideas. It’s not naturalistic at all. As Patrick told us, it’s poetic naturalism. And the challenge is to activate the text and connect with the other person, to keep it human and alive, so it doesn’t resemble a ‘Ted Talk.’”

Tom Stoppard’s new play “Leopoldstadt” features 3 Brooklynites. Photo: Courtesy of Leopoldstadt Broadway

COLLEEN: “I love getting to be immersed in the language and velocity of Stoppard’s world every night, but what’s fun about the way he’s written my character, Hanna, is that she runs sort of counter-current to the quick, nimble energy he’s known for writing people with. She’s inappropriate and exclamatory, very much the youngest adult in the room, and even in her older scenes, when she’s still and deliberate, all of her lines are interjections. Musically she’s coltish, like an overeager snare drum, so the challenge was in leaning boldly into that. It’s terrifying to have such a different rhythm than the rest of the family at points, and there were moments in rehearsal where I’d look out at Tom like “am I doing this right? Is this the music you wrote?” Once I got brave enough to embrace that energy it was still terrifying but in a fun way — he wrote about a woman who misbehaves constantly and makes a spectacular fool of herself, and then is all the tougher for it.”

EAGLE: How did Patrick handle rehearsing such a large cast?

COLLEEN: He had a couple of rehearsal rooms running at the same time. The largest was where the principal cast would rehearse. It was a big room with the set mapped out. Then there was a room next door for the children.

TEDRA: Which we called the Shtetl. To piggy-back on what Colleen was saying, one of the really helpful things Patrick did was to have the adult actors play their younger selves.

EAGLE: Was this the first time you had acted in such a big cast?

MATT: Other than “Matilda,” which was a musical, this is the largest cast I’ve ever worked with, for sure.

TEDRA: Yes, definitely except for perhaps the Scottish play [Macbeth] in college and maybe “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s such fun being on stage with so many people! You can connect with a new cast member every night. The play feels very full at all times.

Tedra Millan. Photo: Courtesy of Leopoldstadt Broadway

COLLEEN: Yes, I’d never done a play before like this, with such a large cast. It’s also my Broadway debut, so, in general, it was a big leap for me. My previous show had been in a fourteen seat black-box theatre. This play really does have the chemistry of a family. During the previews, when I was so nervous, I could look around the stage and there’s my “mother,” there’s my “father,” there’s my “sister.” I found that very comforting and grounding.

EAGLE: Now that you’ve all done your first Stoppard play, are there others you’d like to act in?

COLLEEN: “Arcadia” is one of my favorite plays. It was my gateway into theatre; I had a teacher hand it to me when I was thirteen and that play has come back into my life several times. As the others were saying, all of Tom’s plays are very musical but “Arcadia” sings so beautifully. The velocity with which it moves, the way everybody’s thoughts bounce off each other, I find so exhilarating. It’s lush and it’s memory, like “Leopoldstadt,” and I find that just gorgeous.

MATT: For me, it would be “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” for sure. That was my introduction to Stoppard. I fell in love with it and I think it’s an amazing play. Stoppard took these two secondary characters who have comically small [roles] and made an entire play about them. I’d love to play one of those guys.

TEDRA (laughing): Ditto for me. I’d be one of those dudes.

MATT: OK, Teddy, let’s do it!

EAGLE: Colleen you studied at RADA in London, Tedra you studied at LAMDA, also in London, and Matt you’ve done a lot of Shakespeare. Do you think that was good preparation for doing Stoppard?

TEDRA: I’d say so. My masters degree was in classical acting, so having developed the practice of going to those deep, dark places in the text was very helpful and it was great training for doing “Leopoldstadt.”

COLLEEN: I found the technique I learned at RADA really helpful in finding the tools with which to act in “Leopoldstadt.” Little things like getting to the end of a line, what words to stress, the pace. Knowing the rhythms and inflections of a joke. Plus how to read the clues in a text. It’s so helpful to have the tools to deal with these challenges.

EAGLE: Finally, I’d like to ask each of you where you’re from originally and what attracted you to Brooklyn?

TEDRA: I’m originally from Philadelphia, so it wasn’t that big a leap. I’ve been in New York for twelve years, the past seven in Brooklyn. I’ve lived in Park Slope, Ft. Greene and just a few months ago I moved to Prospect Heights. I love being close to Prospect Park. What I like about Brooklyn is that I can go to work in Manhattan, then come back to Brooklyn and take a sigh of relief that I’m no longer in Manhattan. It feels like home to me. I love my neighborhood; it’s cozy and welcoming.

COLLEEN: I’m originally from Hartford. I came here for college (NYU Tisch) and stuck around. I’ve been in Brooklyn for several years now, first in Flatbush, now in Cobble Hill. At first it was practical because I did a lot of nannying jobs and working in restaurants out here. Then I found that a lot of my friends had moved here and having that network of friends matched well with my living in Brooklyn.

MATT: I’m originally from San Diego, but my mom and my grandparents grew up here. And I’ve always felt more at home here in Brooklyn than in San Diego – even though I love San Diego, especially now that winter’s arriving. I was at NYU, in their Graduate Acting Program, and in my senior year my roommate and I figured it was time to get out of the dorms. As we were looking around, we ended up in Park Slope. I’ve now been in Park Slope for twenty years, in three different apartments, always moving southward. At this rate soon I’ll be in Kensington!

EAGLE: Do you know where in Brooklyn your mom and her family lived?

Matt Harrington. Photo: Courtesy of Leopoldstadt Broadway

MATT: They were in East New York. So they were out there. My mom used to talk about the Pishkin Avenue pushcarts. But I just have to echo what Teddy said: I love Brooklyn.

EAGLE: Any shout-outs to particular bars, restaurants, coffee shops?

TEDRA: Olea in Ft. Greene is my favorite restaurant in Brooklyn. And for French food I love Cafe Paulette, also in Ft. Greene.

COLLEEN: There are so many…Congress Bar, Henry Public, Long Island Bar.

EAGLE: Wasn’t Long Island Bar a landmark dive for the old Brooklyn waterfront ?

COLLEEN (laughing):That’s part of its charm. They happen to make fantastic burgers and top-shelf cocktails. It’s a great place to go and unwind after a performance.

EAGLE: Thank you all very much.

Leopoldstadt is at the Longacre Theatre through March 12. For ticket and schedule information go to leopoldstadtplay.com


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