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Joshua Malina’s Broadway return in ‘Leopoldstadt’ packs a personal punch

The opportunity to appear in “Leopoldstadt,” was in some ways an extension of Malina's mission to speak out against antisemitism

When Joshua Malina learned that Tom Stoppard’s widely celebrated play about Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Vienna, “Leopoldstadt,” would be making its Broadway debut last fall, the veteran TV actor was determined to nab an audition.

“I tried to get in,” he recalled in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, adding that, for whatever reason, his initial effort proved unsuccessful. “You never know what happens, but I just remember hearing that, ‘no, there’s nothing really in it for you.’”

The rejection, however, was far from decisive, he would find. Later, thanks to a tip from his agent, Malina expressed renewed interest in signing on amid rumors that a leading actor in “Leopoldstadt,” David Krumholtz, was planning to bow out before the play’s conclusion this summer. “To my delight and amazement,” he marveled, “they offered me the role.”

Malina, who began rehearsals last month, will take the stage on Tuesday at Manhattan’s Longacre Theater, joining a limited run that is scheduled to end on July 2. He is stepping into a major role as the assimilated Jewish patriarch Hermann Merz, a wealthy textile manufacturer who learns, as the Nazis rise to power, that even his conversion to Catholicism offers no protection from the horrors of antisemitism.

For Malina, 57, the coveted gig marks something of a triumphant return to his roots in theater. More than three decades ago, he began his acting career in the Broadway production of Aaron Sorkin’s breakout play, “A Few Good Men,” before landing a series of distinctive roles in such cult-status TV shows as “Sports Night,” “Scandal” and “The West Wing,” the NBC political drama for which he is best known.

Still, Malina privately harbored ambitions to pursue theater again if the right opportunity should arise. “I haven’t been on Broadway in 34 years, and I’ve wanted to for a long time,” he said. Last September, he inched closer to that goal, accepting a role acting in a monthlong stage adaptation of Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” at The Old Globe in San Diego.

“It sounds like a cliché, but it sort of reinspired me and reawakened me to why I wanted to be an actor in the first place,” he said of the production. “I love working on TV and films, but there’s something special about a live performance that there’s no substitute for.”

Not long after that performance, “Leopoldstadt,” which had premiered mid-way through the Englander production, “just sort of magically presented itself,” Malina said with characteristic humility. “It’s one of those ‘pinch-me’ moments in my career.”

From a personal standpoint, the play, which first opened in London in 2020, is a natural fit for Malina, a Jewish actor who is among the most outspoken critics of antisemitism in Hollywood. 

Two years ago, for instance, in a withering viral essay for The Atlantic, he reopened an uncomfortable conversation around the film industry’s continued acceptance of Mel Gibson, whom Malina dismissed as “a well-known Jew-hater.” Meanwhile, on Twitter, where he identifies simply as “(((Jew))),” Malina, a former yeshiva student who grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., and now lives in Los Angeles, has dedicated much of his pungently worded social media feed to exposing antisemitism wherever such hatred emerges.

The opportunity to appear in “Leopoldstadt,” he suggested, is in some ways an extension of that mission, which he views with particular urgency as antisemitic incidents have risen sharply in recent years. “I just thought it was a very relevant piece of theater for today,” Malina told JI. 

“There’s a feeling of security sometimes, and then you can find that your feeling of security and your safety is built on sand,” he elaborated. “We’re at a time, in 2023, when antisemitism and all kinds of racism and senseless hate are on the rise, and so it makes me question sometimes how secure I feel in my life.”

The play, which includes an immense cast of 38 actors, centers on a family of Viennese Jews in the decades before the Holocaust and in its immediate aftermath. By varying degrees, they are all ultimately forced to confront what viewers know is inevitably in store, even as some characters — namely Hermann, who is comfortably ensconced in Austrian high society — remain optimistic that the vicious legacy of European antisemitism is largely under control.

Because of that tragic blind spot, among other things, Malina said he had been particularly “moved by Hermann” when he first read the script and in subsequent viewings after he had claimed the role.

“It would be easy to sort of watch the play and maybe decide that he’s somehow foolish for not seeing what’s coming,” Malina told JI, adding: “Rather than thinking him foolish, I feel compassion for the character, because I think it’s understandable to think that the progress you’ve made as a people, and as a specific person, is going to continue rather than the wheels of history suddenly pivoting and regressing.”

In one of the play’s most harrowing scenes, Hermann is, at least momentarily, disabused of such illusions as he challenges an Austrian officer, whom he believes has insulted his wife, a gentile, to a duel. The young cadet, however, refuses, for the simple reason that because “a Jew is devoid of honor from the day of his birth,” he insists, it is “impossible” to have insulted Hermann, who “cannot therefore demand satisfaction for any suffered insult.”

“In a split second, it’s made clear to Hermann that, despite his being baptized Catholic and his having converted, he is, as he stands before this man, just a Jew,” Malina observed. “I think it’s going to be a challenging but rewarding moment. There’s a lot going on there emotionally.”

Well before formal rehearsals began a few weeks ago, Malina had been mentally preparing to assume the role. He has read the play multiple times, he said, while “thinking deeply” about its themes. On the suggestion of Patrick Marber, the director who hired him, he has also consulted a book of history, Last Waltz in Vienna: The Destruction of a Family 1842–1942, whose story is similar to that of “Leopoldstadt,” which takes its name from Vienna’s Jewish quarter.

Stoppard, 85, wrote the play as a sort of belated reckoning with his own Jewish heritage, which he had long failed to acknowledge. The British playwright, who was born in Czechoslovakia before World War II, only discovered that he was Jewish later in life, after a cousin informed him that his grandparents had all died in the Holocaust.

For his part, Malina, who described himself as a “full-on Ashkenazi Polish Jew,” said he is aware of “extended family” who perished during the Nazi genocide. “But it was the good fortune of my family, I guess, to have escaped areas of Poland where they lived, which were bad enough early enough that most of my close ancestors came to the United States before things got far, far worse.”

While they had never met before he was brought into the production, Malina said he has long admired Stoppard’s work, which includes such plays as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “The Coast of Utopia,” among countless others. The first Stoppard production Malina himself saw was “The Real Thing,” which he attended on opening night in 1984, five years before his own Broadway debut. 

“I remember as an 18-year-old, would-be actor at the time being blown away by this man’s writing,” he said, adding that Stoppard had sent him a “lovely” message when he was chosen to play Hermann. “It was nice to send him an email and thank him and say, ‘You know, if my 18-year-old self knew that my 57-year-old self would be acting on Broadway in a Stoppard play, he probably wouldn’t have believed that.’”

In conversation with JI a month before his first Broadway performance in more than 30 years, Malina explained that he was feeling both excited and daunted by the prospect of joining a large cast of “first-rate actors” in a production that he characterized as “a very well-oiled machine.”

“I will say that I feel pressure,” he acknowledged. “It’s like when you play tennis with people who are better than you at tennis, sometimes you play a little bit better than you normally play, and so I’m hopeful that these great actors that I’m lucky enough to join will raise my game.”

But such circumstances, he added, are hardly new to him. “It’s a little bit like when I joined the cast of ‘The West Wing,’” he recalled of his experience playing Will Bailey, a precocious presidential speechwriter and White House advisor who would become one of the show’s most beloved characters. “I’m like, ‘OK, well, this thing is already up and running and it’s great, and everybody is excellent at what they do. I have to show up now and not bring down the entire endeavor.’”

He isn’t the only new face appearing onstage on Tuesday. Among others, Dave Register is taking over the role of Fritz, the Austrian officer with whom Hermann has a memorable scene.

Beyond acting, Malina, who previously co-hosted a popular podcast about “The West Wing” that concluded in 2020, has more recently turned his attention to Jewish issues on a separate podcast called “Chutzpod,” which he began hosting a year ago with Shira Stutman, a rabbi in Aspen, Colo. Malina said he had briefly stepped away from the weekly show to focus on rehearsals, but intends to return to hosting once performances begin.

In an effort that predates the podcast, Malina has also been pitching a new TV series based on what he has called a “comic spy thriller” he optioned. The project is slow going, he told JI. “I wish there were something more significant than the glacial progress I think we’re making,” he said of the show, more details of which he declined to share. “We are continuing to work on it, and I hope it will happen.”

For the moment, however, Malina is especially energized as he mounts a Broadway comeback, not least because he is acting in a production whose message so movingly underscores his own personal concerns about rising antisemitism.

Still, he said that theatergoers would be well-served if they viewed “Leopoldstadt” through a more expansive lens than its subject material might immediately suggest. “It would be very reductive to consider it just a Holocaust play and to feel like if you’ve seen other works of art that deal directly or tangentially with the Holocaust, enough is enough,” he told JI. “It is a powerful play, but it’s also funny, and it’s joyous, and you see the family functioning in rich and rewarding times and also difficult and challenging times.

“You don’t have to be Jewish, you don’t have to be particularly concerned with the Holocaust, to derive a lot from the experience of seeing this play.”

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