‘If I Forget’ asks when does history predict the future?

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How it’s New York: Characters in the play live in Park Slope, and the play is a production of the Roundabout Theatre Company, one of New York’s most important residential theatres.
How it’s (Irish) Jirish: The play centers on the question of what the Holocaust means to Jewish identity, but in its family dynamics and many of its concerns with the past and the future, will feel very relevant to Irish-Americans too.

The adult sibling relationships in Steven Levenson’s ambitious new drama “If I Forget” are hilariously, and sadly, convincing. The Fischer family children–Michael (Jeremy Shamos), Holly (Kate Walsh, yes that Kate Walsh, of “Grey’s Anatomy”) and Sharon (Maria Dizzia) have just the right amount of in-jokes, shared history and buttons that are pushed, resentments and affection that anyone who’s got them will feel a jolt of pleasant, and uncomfortable, recognition.

The plot of the play, which won the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, is less compelling, despite terrific performances by the cast, which also include Larry Bryggman as elderly father Lou,  Tasha Lawrence as Michael’s wife Ellen, Gary Wilmes as Holly’s attorney husband Howard, and Seth Steinberg as Holly’s teenage son-from-a-prior-marriage Joey.

Wading into Arthur Miller territory, Levenson (best known for his libretto to “Dear Evan Hansen”) centers Act One around the question of Jewish identity vis-a-vis the Holocaust. It’s Miller territory because Michael, a Jewish Studies professor who has been “recommended for tenure,” has a book titled “Forgetting the Holocaust” in galleys. Its thesis  suggests that American Jews make too much of the Holocaust and it’s time to forget about it. He delivers well-constructed impassioned speeches, but nobody offers an equally impassioned, articulate rebuttal. Fortunately for the play, the drama doesn’t center so much around this question that it becomes about it.

Act Two centers around the question of whether the children should sell the family store to pay for medical care for their father. Substitute a cherry orchard here, and you get the idea. The two acts are only obliquely connected– it’s the same people, but it’s a different question. Abby, Michael and Ellen’s daughter, falls prey to “Jerusalem Syndrome” while on a BirthRite trip, and by Act II has to be taken out of school. This is a real syndrome, though not in the DSM, where people develop pyschotic symptoms after visiting the ancient city.

“If I Forget” takes place right before and right after the 2000 election, at the suburban WAshington, D.C., home of Lou Fishcer, where the Fishcher children grew up. It’s around the time of the Second Intifada. Michael, we learn, was for Nader. This detail, along with his atheism, pegs him as an extreme lefty. He’s also, naturally, pro-Palestinian. Youngest sister Sharon (she seems to be late 30s) has turned religious– which in the play means she voted Republican. These are simplistic divides. Sharon has one of the best zingers when in Act II she reminds her brother,

“We are not punishing Dad because you decided to buy an apartment in Park Slope six months before you published ‘Mein Kampf.'”

Holly, pampered and a little prissy, means well but is a little out of touch. She wants to turn the family store into an interior design business– until she realizes that she and her husband don’t have the means after all. But in the discussion of the store, too, there are obvious avenues never even raised. One, for example, is why not sell the family home? It might not be worth much– but the discussion deserves a line. Sharon, the youngest, a kindergarten teacher, has been doing the heavy lifting in caring for her parents, and feels an all too natural resentment.

Levenson seems to want to raise the same issues about the Holocaust and Israel that Michael does– but it doesn’t quite work. Michael’s own father liberated Dachau, which makes his polemic both psycholically understandable, as a rebellion, and also particularly insensitive– especially when we learn he sent it to his father to read.The fact that, as a lobby display with stats clarifies, Jews disagree on many things but 94% agree about the importance of the Holocaust merely means they agree– not that they define themselves by it, or by being victims. It’s such an obvious point that it’s cheating a bit to have neither sibling bring it up. The Holocaust, in 2000, was not even 60 years ago. The famine was more than 100 years ago, and still matters. For an academic, his rants are awfully un-sourced and emotional. We hear that he has 60 pages of footnotes, but most academics can’t resist the appeal to at least one authority– even in a family fight.

Of course, the unnamed university (Columbia?) citing “lack of rigor” as a way to oust him is appalling– but also predictable. People who are tenure-track generally know better than to write something controversial before tenure is complete. The playwright’s hand is a bit heavy here, though it’s to his credit that unlike a Miller argument, “If I Forget” doesn’t lead to someone being persuaded, or someone recanting.

As with the Holocaust argument, the store, which symbolizes the past and how it might need to be replaced to finance the future, doesn’t quite work as a plot-device or as a symbol of family history. Despite the father’s having held down the fort during riots, it’s never convincing that this store is the family’s legacy. The father didn’t start it; he’s been renting it for years; it lost its identity long before the play begins.

It’s a credit to director Daniel Sullivan that the plot faults aren’t more noticeable. He’s pulled very natural, all-too-recognizable performances from the entire cast. Shamos’ hapless, articulate and rueful professor who still looks up to his big sister and needles his little sister feels perfectly tuned. Walsh’s wealthy matron who scolds her teenage son and enthuses about her new potential business evokes laugh and warmth. And Dizzia, as  the idealistic youngest, convincingly irritates and shames her older siblings.

Derek McLane’s two-story set, which revolves to show us both the interior and exterior of the house the children grew up in, feels authentic– if somewhat not cluttered enough.

Despite its flaws, Levenson’s depiction of recognizable and articulate family dealing with issues in an impassioned way makes for an engaging evening in the theatre. It’s a long play– 2 and a half hours– but doesn’t drag. The characters are smart– often a bit smarter than the plot. Holly, in Act One, talks about her daughter, who’s studying acting at Tisch School of the arts, “she sings, she cries… we’re paying $40,000 a year for Montessori School.”

It’s also a credit to Roundabout that it’s producing plays which take on big questions. “On the Exhale,” a new play by Martín Zimmerman, a play dealing with gun violence, is running in their smallest space. And “The Price,” by Arthur Miller, is running now through May. Barack Obama went to see it recently,we hear.

The title of  “If I Forget” alludes to Psalm 133, the one that begins “By the waters of Babylon.” It includes the words:

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,

Let my right hand forget her cunning.

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
If I remember thee not;
If I set not Jerusalem
Above my chiefest joy.
The title also alludes to the Holocaust reminder to “Never Forget.”
But nobody in the play ever uses the words of the title– and the two resonances don’t really gel. Much like the play, they are provocative, but a little simple.

***
“If I Forget” runs at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th St., through April 30.

For tickets visit roundabouttheatre.org or call 212-719-1300.

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