In “If I Forget,” a well-acted, often funny and always engaging Jewish family drama by Steven Levenson (the book-writer for Dear Evan Hansen) we travel back to an era that no longer exists except in memory, although it is a mere 15 years ago. Cell phones are an oversized novelty in 2000 and 2001, when the play takes place, and the Fischer family talks of hanging chads and Students for Nader and the second Intifada. Yet the concerns of Levenson’s play feel both up-to-the-minute and age-old, as Michael (Jeremy Shamos) and his two sisters Holly (Kate Walsh, from Private Practice) and Sharon (Maria Dizzia) argue politics and religion and identity.
They also argue about what to do about Dad. That is more or less the reason they have reunited in their childhood home in Washington D.C. (a substantial two-tiered set by Derek McLane), where their father (Larry Bryggman) still lives. In failing health, he has retired from the clothing store he inherited from his father and ran his entire life, now renting it out to a Latino family that has turned it into a dollar store.
The central plot, which doesn’t kick in until after the intermission, revolves around how to take care of Dad – and what to do about the store. Sharon, who works as a kindergarten teacher and takes on the bulk of the caretaking, wants to keep renting the store at below-market rate to the Latino family. Holly, the dilettantish wife of a lawyer Howard (Gary Wilmes), wants to take it over to launch an interior decorating business she plans to call Spaces and Places. Michael, a Jewish Studies professor with a precarious career and a daughter in need of expensive mental health care, wants to sell it. As individual and family secrets are revealed, we realize that each character has an ulterior motive for the positions they are taking.
All of this unfolds expertly, each character maintaining their appeal and our interest, even those on the periphery: Seth Steinberg as Joey, Holly and Howard’s sullen teenage son, is hilariously spot-on, and the way his mother Holly bickers and fusses with him is priceless. But this conventional drama also ties into the larger issues the playwright skillfully weaves in. Michael has written a book entitled “Forgetting the Holocaust,” whose controversial thesis is that the memory of the Holocaust is being used to force blind support of Israeli policy. Shamos delivers long passionate and provocative passages:
“A hundred years ago, Jews were part of every single radical, secular political movement in Europe. The Zionists? They hated religion. They hated the rabbis more than the communists did. The point was to change this world. To make a world where Jews wouldn’t even exist – there would just be one single international human brotherhood. And then at a certain point, we just, we gave up. We gave up on politics and social justice, because…I don’t know why…..And now you look around and everybody on the Upper West Side is reading books on Kabbalah and kosher sex, whatever the hell that is, and it’s just, what happened to the last hundred years? ”
The rest of the family is aghast at his views.
“You know, a lot of Democrats, a lot of liberals, people like you, have become frankly very anti-Semitic. Especially about Israel,” Sharon says to him.
If it’s a little hard to buy some of the opinions the playwright gives to a Jewish Studies professor (such as his contempt for Hebrew) there are certainly plenty of Jewish families who continue to have these debates.
If I Forget
Laura Pels Theatre
Written by Steven Levenson
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Set design by Derek McLane, costume design by Jess Goldstein, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, sound design and music composed by Dan Moses Schreier
Cast: Larry Bryggman, Maria Dizzia, Tasha Lawrence, Jeremy Shamos, Seth Michael Steinberg, Kate Walsh and Gary Wilmes
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission
IF We Forget runs through April 30, 2017