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If I Forget

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 22, 2017

Tasha Lawrence, Larry Bryggman, Jeremy Shamos,
Seth Steinberg, Gary Wilmes, and Maria Dizzia
Photo by Joan Marcus

Some things are just too terrible to say, invoking horrifying ghosts and suggesting blood-curdling motives even if the underlying intentions are pure (or something close it, at any rate). One of these things rests at the uneasy center of If I Forget, the new play by Steven Levenson that just opened at the Laura Pels Theatre in a Roundabout production. In brief: We should forget the Holocaust. For many, that will have agonizing resonance enough in the age of Donald Trump, but it gets worse. The thinker of that thought, and the speaker of (essentially) those words is himself a Jew! Well, by birth—religiously, he's considers himself an atheist. And on top of all that, he's a Jewish Studies professor at a prestigious university. If anyone has the standing to make such a claim, surely it's he?

Surely not. Yes, there's a bit more to the philosophy of Michael Fischer than merely these incendiary notions he floats in his soon-to-be-published book Forgetting the Holocaust, but if they're as far as anyone gets, by any accounting that matters, they're all there is. As played by Jeremy Shamos, with a starkly intellectual mien and sharper-than-usual edges, Michael is an expert at painting himself the victim: of closed minds, of closed hearts, of a society that's more dedicated to defending Israel the place than examining what Israel stands for, and he's never afraid to let you know it. He feels the burden of history like no one else, and getting his point of view out there is, to him, worth any cost. Maybe even the tenure he's applied for.

Michael's myopia, however, does not necessarily extend to the other members of his family. His wife, Ellen (Tasha Lawrence), isn't Jewish at all, though their (unseen) daughter Abby is in the midst of a trip to the Holy Land when the play begins. Michael's sister, Holly (Kate Walsh), is a high-holy-day Jew at best, with her husband Howard (Gary Wilmes) and son Joey (Seth Steinberg) all but entirely divorced from her faith. Sister Sharon (Maria Dizzia) is the most involved of the lot (until recently, she attended a "Conservadox" temple), but still harbors a connection mostly through her parents, whom she grew particularly close to when caring for their mother before her death. As for father Lou (Larry Bryggman), he was one of the Americans who liberated Dachau, and takes everything about the Jewish experience more personally and intimately than the others do (or can).

Levenson, whose other plays for Roundabout include The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin and The Language of Trees, and who provided the book for the currently running Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, unfurls this set of relationships in a swath of different directions that are all about fixing these people at a specific, anguished point in time: the end of 2000 and the beginning of 2001. They must battle not just each other, but the figurative ghosts of those who've come before and are still contributing to their humanity (or, perhaps, the lack thereof). These take on a variety of forms, with something different for everyone, until they coalesce in the jumbled final scenes into an understanding, or at least a perception, of the parts they play in perpetuating the line.

Shamos and Steinberg on the top level, and Dizzia, Bryggman,
and Kate Walsh on the bottom level.
Photo by Joan Marcus

If it's only at that point that If I Forget becomes a genuine mess, with Levenson trying to apply a cosmic overlay on a narrative that has not earned it, it's not the cleanest or smoothest ride to that point. The setting has an arbitrary nature that seems to function only as a way to let Levenson examine our own time from a glib remove (the contentious Bush-versus-Gore election, and its related question of who voted for whom, is pitched to recall a far more recent one; there are lots of plaints about currently trendy subjects like nationalism), or to let him work in cheap jokes that are a decade or more out of date. (One character blares: "What are you, a heart surgeon? You need a cell phone?").

Worse still, a handful of major plot points—one about Abby suffering from an odd medical malady; a deep, dark secret of Howard's; the result of a surprise romance; the final fate of the store that represents the Fischer family across the generations—are mechanically articulated and executed, more for maximum surface-level effect than to hit you in the gut. With the exception of Michael, whom you're programmed to hate via the sleazy smarminess with which he argues his book's thesis, these are not people you feel strongly for one way or another. If you buy their plight on your way in, you'll accept, and perhaps sympathize, with what happens to them. But of the gang, only Lou doesn't brew an unending supply of his own bad luck.

Bryggman's pitiful but warm performance is a major highlight, and the actor embodies his strength and his pain in equal measure. Shamos is so inherently guy-next-door likable that he successfully tempers Michael into something downstream of the self-denying monster he could all too easily be in lesser hands, though he can't quite convince you that the man's intentions are as honorable as he suggests. There's just too much deck-stacking for that, and it affects all the other performers, too—they're not able to cut through it to find the flesh and blood beneath. Director Daniel Sullivan has staged things simply but expressively, on a lovely two-story rotating house set (by Derek McLane) that imparts motion where it wouldn't otherwise want to emerge, but there's little he can do to truly energize the static situations before him.

If it does nothing else, If I Forget insists we examine our own prejudices and the impact they have—it can be a lot easier than we think to wound those closest to us only by speaking what we consider the truth. But the lackadaisical plotting isn't sufficient to bolster the underlying contention that American Jews bear the weight of regret, responsibility, and reparations in a way no one else does—and in a way no one else can remedy. They don't need to ignore the Holocaust, Michael claims he believes, just merely change their relationship to it. Focusing on that could indeed make for a fascinating play, but it's a far cry from the wishy-washy one Levenson actually wrote.

If I Forget
Through April 30
The Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: