If I Forget
Steven Levenson looks back at the turn of the 21st century to examine modern Jewish identity.
Political conversation is not in short supply these days. But Steven Levenson's If I Forget is here to jog our collective memories about the topics that circled our brains at the turn of the fine century that we now find ourselves trudging through. Perhaps the last thing you want out of your night away from current events is a few hours with someone else's bickering relatives, arguing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the morality of Republicans versus Democrats, and the merits of religious faith. But rare is the opportunity to quietly take in all sides of so many emotionally fraught subjects through such witty, articulate, and impassioned voices as Levenson has created for this world premiere with Roundabout Theatre Company.
If the earlier list of disputed topics didn't give it away, If I Forget largely circles around an ongoing debate about Jewish identity among the members of the Fischer family — an upper-middle-class clan with a home base in the largely white neighborhood of Tenleytown in Washington, D.C. The family matriarch has passed away, and the patriarch, World War II veteran Lou Fischer (given a sturdy and authentic voice by Larry Bryggman) is in fragile health. That leaves most of the disputing — of both the aggressive and passive-aggressive varieties — to his three adult children (stellar performances by Kate Walsh, Jeremy Shamos, and Maria Dizzia), who are together in their family home for the first time since their mother's funeral (a two-story suburban house designed by Derek McLane allows several stories to unfold at once). Directed by Daniel Sullivan as a constantly pushing and pulling network of friction and love, the siblings debate everything from the impending presidential election (spoiler: Bush won) to the details of their family's future, for which they are now responsible.
This reunion is long overdue, and it's no secret that the one to blame is middle child Michael (Shamos), an atheist Jewish studies professor whose career often outweighs family obligation. Most recently, his professional life has surrounded his provocatively titled book about the Jewish connection to the Holocaust — a project that gets him into hot water at work, and, intentionally or not, undermines his family's Jewish faith.
Well, "faith" may be the wrong word.
The eldest Fischer Holly (a brilliantly haughty Walsh) claims her Judaism with conviction, and yet, gives it little thought as she goes about her privileged life with her wealthy husband, Howard (Gary Wilmes, whose mere presence telegraphs cobwebs under his shiny veneer of success). She admits to her love of Christmas trees, her meager synagogue attendance, and her indifference to the existence of any particular god, but none of those things speak to her definition of Judaism — which she probably couldn't articulate if you asked.
Meanwhile, for the youngest and most burdened caretaker of the siblings Sharon (Dizzia, perfectly administering doses of Jewish guilt to her fellow Fischers), Judaism means legacy. In her world, that translates to political support for the state of Israel, an enduring connection to the Holocaust through her father's stories about liberating Dachau concentration camp, and a family store that has become a treasured heirloom (although the space is currently being rented by a Guatemalan family).
Her views can only lead to clashes with Michael, who by contrast, believes one patch of dirt is like all the rest, and these unnecessary ties are what have destroyed the Jewish culture, removing it from its glory days as a machine of secular social justice. Shamos delivers two showstopping monologues on the subject with the fervor of an evangelist, warning those around him that if things stay as they are, the abyss is near for the Jewish people. He even refuses to accept his troubled daughter's attempt to find solace in a spiritual birthright trip to Israel — a move that gives hope to his non-Jewish wife, Ellen (a beautiful performance by Tasha Lawrence, who sticks to the sidelines like a less-than-welcome visitor).
Levenson implicates everything from global ethics to the most infinitesimal crumbs of personal identity with this play, whose layers are infinite but whose seams are few. He shows the same acumen for intimate family stories that he does in his book for the new and emotionally complex Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. But with more room for his words and thoughts to breathe, this small story explodes into a cloud of provocative questions, none of which are answered, but all of which are mined with impressive depth and efficiency.
At times, If I Forget feels like a companion piece to Danai Gurira's Familiar — a play about the evolution of the African-American experience that premiered at Playwrights Horizons last season. In a country that proudly self-identifies as a melting pot, it's only fitting that the struggle between assimilation and cultural identity gain more traction. And as today's shadows portend an increasing struggle to distinguish one's own history from the monochromatic ooze, questioning the tide is the most productive thing we can do.