Steven Levenson’s Jewish family drama “If I Forget,” now at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, asks several difficult questions: What is the significance of heritage? Do we know who we are without it? Who gets to determine that heritage?
While it is not entirely successful, the play bristles with provocative declamations on American Jewish life, Holocaust politics, gentrification, academia, parenthood, parnassah, and other aspects of middle-class angst. It’s often very funny, and highly intelligent throughout.
Spanning the summer of 2000 to the winter of 2001, the play opens at Lou Fischer’s house in northwest Washington D.C., at a party for his 75th birthday. The guests include his son Michael (Jeremy Shamos), a Jewish studies professor, and Michael’s wife, Ellen (Tasha Lawrence), a social worker. Michael is deeply worried about their daughter Abby, who is on a Birthright trip, or as Michael describes it, a “10-day bus ride through a war zone.” Ellen is much more supportive of Abby’s visit, which she sees as a spiritual journey, something that may help Abby cope with her psychological struggles. Michael and Abby have just bought an apartment in Park Slope on the strength of Michael’s recommendation for tenure at his small liberal-arts college, and he is both nervous and excited about the publication of his latest book.
Michael’s sisters, Sharon and Holly, Holly’s husband, lawyer Howard (Gary Wilmes), and her irritating teenage son Joey (Seth Steinberg) are the other guests at the party. The youngest of the three siblings, Sharon (Maria Dizzia), lives in the house with Lou since their mother’s recent death and is the sort of woman who feels that the world takes continuous advantage of her. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, whom she caught in a compromising position with her cantor — on her recently dry-cleaned duvet, no less — and she can’t stop reminding her siblings of how little they do compared to her own sacrifice. Holly (Kate Walsh), the oldest, is hostile and undermining in her own way. Wealthier than her siblings, she subtly carps at what they do, especially picking at Michael’s writing. It’s too obscure, it’s too boring, and it’s too unsuccessful.
One of the strengths of the play is the interplay between these three; they feel like people who have known each other long enough to understand just how to wound. Levenson is part of the team responsible for the hit musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” and he is sensitive to the slights and injuries siblings can inflict.
When Lou (Larry Brygmann) comes on stage, one of the play’s central metaphors reveals itself. Lou inherited a clothing store from his in-laws in a poor section of Washington, an area that is now gentrifying. Sharon is particularly fond of Lou’s current tenants, Latinos who have paid the same low rent for many years. Holly has a plan to take the space over for the interior-design business she wants to establish. Whether this ambition is anything more than a bored housewife’s fantasy is debatable, but Holly has a clever name and business cards, so she figures she’s ready to go. All she needs is the space.
The Fischers struggle with who the store belongs to and what its heritage means to them individually. Does Lou’s dream that his children will take over the family business bind them together or drive them apart? How realistic is it that a Jewish father wants his kids to take over a dollar store in a rundown neighborhood? Not very. Most Jewish merchants sent their children to college in order to avoid such a fate.
The more effective metaphor in the play is the uproar over Michael’s book, “Forgetting the Holocaust.” Theorizing that American Jews have embraced the Holocaust as their true heritage, Michael argues that the community’s obsession with the Shoah and its commensurate knee-jerk support of Israel is a symptom of its abandonment of the legacy of social justice that inspired generations in the first half of the twentieth century. That is the heritage that Michael claims as his own, the one that marks his Jewish identity. When Sharon accuses him of attacking their family and all it stands for, he cannot understand her anger. A further irony is that Israel may be the only place where a secular Jew can live the fully engaged Jewish life Michael so admires. What does Jewish heritage and identity mean in an open, assimilationist society to someone who is not religious? These quandaries seem ever more confounding next to the brazen anti-Semitism of some of the fans of the current administration.
The second act brings alterations to everyone’s situation. Lou has had a stroke and is much frailer; his children have to come together to deal with his care. Michael has experienced a dramatic setback and the others have their own issues as well.
“If I Forget” is a recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, and it certainly merits attention for its complex family and political dynamic. While the set design awkwardly emphasizes the Fischer family’s separation, Daniel Sullivan’s brisk direction keeps the focus on the social currents underlying the time just before the September 11 attacks, which would change so much in the country’s psyche. An engaging play for open-minded theatergoers.