Yes, that holiday is being celebrated in this Jewish household, a commingling of traditions that finds droll expression when a child mistakenly tops the towering Christmas tree with a Star of David. For Hermann — whose wife, Gretl (Faye Castelow), is Catholic — cultural assimilation is a fait accompli as Austria moves into a new century.
Or is it? The group assembled before us may represent a sort of cosmopolitan melting pot, in which conversation touches on the latest play by Schnitzler, the painting of Klimt (for whom Gretl is posing), higher mathematics and the theories of Freud. (This is a Stoppard play.)
But as Hermann speaks of his hopes for future social and professional advancement, you sense insecurity pricking at his complacency (an uneasiness that is subtly and expertly conveyed by Scarborough, in the show’s most fully realized portrait).
That disquiet assumes dramatic form before the first act ends, when a romantic triangle — or quadrangle, depending on how you look at it (again, this is a Stoppard play) — forces anti-Semitic sentiment into the open. In the second act, with scenes set during the Depression that followed World War I and in 1938, on the eve of Austria’s incorporation into the Third Reich, that sentiment festers into full-blown, terrifying form.
Thus we watch the once-resplendent Merz household become increasingly shabby and bare, as what once felt like a familial fortress is transformed into a defenseless sanctuary. (Richard Hudson’s artfully evolving set is lighted in a sepia haze by the masterly Neil Austin, and images of the entire clan, posed as if for posterity, become a heartbreaking motif.) We are introduced to new generations of Merzes (in changing-times costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel), whose political allegiances and cultural tastes vary widely.
But being Jewish is no longer a choice for them, not in the age of National Socialism. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of European history will know what to expect when the family freezes at the sound of someone pounding on the door.
That does not make watching what follows any easier. In the final scene, in 1955, a man we had earlier met as a boy returns to the now abandoned apartment. Played by Luke Thallon, he is a successful writer of comic literature and, as far as he knows, a proper Englishman. It seems safe to say that he is a surrogate for Stoppard.