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If I Forget



                                                   By Ron Cohen


Steven Levenson, who has apparently hit pay dirt with his book for the new Broadway hit musical Dear Evan Hansen, scores again with If I Forget, a rich family drama being given an exemplary Off-Broadway production by Roundabout Theatre Company.


The play takes us deeply into the complexities of life facing the Fischers, a Jewish American family, and Levenson has packed his script with enough turns of plot to keep a soap opera going for a year. However, hardly a moment seems false or forced. There are times you may feel you’re eavesdropping on your articulate neighbors or maybe your own family, whatever their ethnicity, as they debate politics, religion and the most personal of family matters. 


Set in 2000/2001, the action takes place in the Washington, DC, home of the patriarch, Lou, whose wife has recently died. Lou has carved out a comfortable life for himself and his family as the owner of a men’s clothing store in an area whose populace has gone from white to black to Latino. He now rents out the store to a Guatemalan family, which runs it as a bodega, bargain store or ethnic boutique, depending on who’s describing it.


The main theme centers on Lou’s son, Michael, who is a professor of Jewish studies in New York but a man who also professes to be an atheist. He is about to publish a controversial book entitled Forgetting the Holocaust, in which he argues that the memory of the Holocaust has completely taken over Jewish life, prompting unquestioning support of nationalism as reflected in Israel and causing American Jews to give up their traditional role in the forefront of liberal causes. Michael and his wife Ellen are visiting in Washington for Lou’s 75th birthday, while their daughter, who has been beset by mental problems, is reveling in her Jewish heritage on a tour to Israel.


Michael has sent his manuscript to his father to read, but Lou, who as a solider in World War II was present at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, has maintained a silence about the book, indicating a negative response. Michael also has to deal with outspoken criticism from his younger sister, Sharon, a kindergarten teacher who has her own problems as a single woman whose life was pretty much put on hold as she tended to her sick mother and now tends to her father’s needs. There are also snarky responses from Michael’s brusque but likeable older sister, Holly, married to an affluent lawyer and obsessed with her own aspirations to be an interior designer.


The first act reaches a climactic moment, when Lou expresses his reaction to Michael’s book, by describing the horrors he witnessed at Dachau. “For you, history is an abstraction,” he tells his son. “But for us, the ones who survived this century, this long century…there are no abstractions anymore.”


It leaves the audience with a lot to think about during intermission and pretty much invested as well in the fates of the Fischer family, who in the second act several months later are beset by a deepening set of problems. Among them, Michael’s book has cost him his job and he’s deep in debt; the mental problems of his daughter have returned; Lou has suffered a debilitating stroke, and Holly’s husband through missteps in one of those new-fangled (in 2001) computer chat rooms has lost a lot of his money. How to pay for Lou’s care is a matter of concern as is the fate of the Guatemalan storekeepers with whom Sharon has become deeply involved.


And there’s still more. Levenson unwinds it all, though, in deft fashion, alternating and punctuating gut-grabbing serious moments with expertly set-up laugh lines and reactions that further define character as well as entertain.


It’s all sharply defined by Daniel Sullivan’s extraordinarily sensitive direction and the talents of a cast that’s probably perfection. Jeremy Shamos instills in Michael an explosive passion as he makes his arguments against the use of the Holocaust as a political tool. He also lets us see a deeply caring man, seasoned with a quick wit, and, together with the fine work of Maria Dizzia as Sharon and Kate Walsh as Holly, paints an affecting portrait of familial irritation and affection. Exuding a bone-deep sense of the somewhat awkward place of family outsiders connected by marriage, Tasha Lawrence as Ellen and Gary Wilmes as Holly’s husband gain their share of audience sympathy as well. Larry Bryggman makes Lou’s Dachau remembrance both quietly chilling and poignant, while Seth Steinberg further enhances the ensemble as Holly’s truculently taciturn teenage son.



Derek McLane’s multilevel set knowingly details the lived-in look of the Fischer home and with the help of a revolving stage and Kenneth Posner’s subtle lighting, easily allows the action to move from room to room, from an upstairs bedroom to the downstairs living room and dining room. The original music and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier keep the emotion throbbing during scene changes.


After the turmoil of his plotting, Levenson ends his play on a quieter note, a coda-like meditation on mortality. Actors seem to drop character and recite directly to the audience a series of the visions Michael’s daughter might have had in her breakdown in Israel, seeing such things as “where Jesus Christ entered on a donkey through the gates of the ancient city…where David laid the foundations of the Temple…men in many uniforms, speaking many tongues…” And Lou has the curtain line: “Gradually, everything, all of us, everything in time, swallowed back into sand.”


It’s a poetic conclusion that may with some in the audience resonate abstractly but is somewhat confounding at the same time. It’s the only murky moment in an otherwise supremely sure-handed piece of playwriting.


Off-Broadway play

Playing at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre

111 West 46th Street


Playing until April 30