Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Off-Broadway Review—Steven Levenson’s “If I Forget”

If I Forget
Written by Steven Levenson; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through April 30, 2017
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY
roundabouttheatre.org

Jeremy Shamos, Kate Walsh and Maria Dizzia in If I Forget (photo: Joan Marcus)

Although he trods familiar ground, Steven Levenson imbues his compassionate Jewish identity play
If I Forget with fresh insights as the bickering Fischer clan hashes out its personal problems in the family home in Tenleytown, a Washington, D.C. neighborhood.

Lou, the 75-year-old patriarch who’s still reeling from his beloved wife’s recent agonizing death from cancer, and his three children are all under one roof. Eldest Holly, who lives nearby, has her second husband Howard and 16-year-old son Joey in tow; middle child, only son and mother’s favorite Michael is visiting from New York with his wife Ellen, while their 19-year-old daughter Abby is visiting Israel at a particularly fraught time (it’s July 2000, and the latest peace process has just broken down, which makes Michael antsy about her safety); and youngest Sharon, who mostly took care of their dying mother, has grown close to a Guatemalan family renting out—at far below market rates, says money-conscious Holly—the old family store in another part of town.

Remarkably for a young playwright (he’s best known for the book of the current hit musical Dear Evan Hansen), Levenson has created three-dimensional, palpably alive characters exhaustively prepped for battles both personal and political, like the one Michael has brought with him. An atheist Jewish Studies professor up for tenure, he has written a controversial book, Forgetting the Holocaust, which threatens to irrevocably damage already tenuous Fischer family, especially since Lou was in the army and helped liberate Dachau, and Sharon makes no bones about finding the book demeaning to the six million who perished.

What helps make If I Forget such a vibrant and incisive examination of the horrors the Fischers must face is a spiky sense of humor, notably when—since the play is set in July 2000 and February 2001—there is talk of Bush v. Gore, Ralph Nader and hanging chads. Before the election, Michael equated Bush and Gore, but he later owns up to his mistake. In July he says, “there’s no difference between four years of Bush and four years of Gore,” then in February admits, when Sharon berates him for not voting for Gore, “Well, I didn’t think he was going to lose.” Such lively and intelligent exchanges among the siblings are often funny but without losing the underlying seriousness. 

This is where the estimable contributions of Daniel Sullivan, one of our premier theater directors for decades, come in: he effortlessly combines a light touch with poignant drama. In Sullivan’s sensitive staging, even the plot’s most melodramatic aspects—an unexpected pregnancy, internet credit card fraud and Michael’s inability to realize his book is incendiary—are delicately rendered. And the story’s unseen characters—troubled young Abby and the Jimenez family, with whom Sharon is far too close for comfort—come through vividly.

But what makes If I Forget unforgettable is the extraordinary cast Sullivan assembled to do these people justice. Seth Steinberg’s Joey, Tasha Lawrence’s Ellen and Gary Wilmes’s Howard are sheer perfection, while Larry Bryggman brings his usual laconic intensity to Lou, whose high point—a late-night memory when he describes what he and other shocked soldiers confronted at Dachau—is among the most breathlessly wrenching few minutes I’ve spent in a theater.

Then there’s the flawless trio portraying the flawed siblings. As Sharon, Maria Dizzia—a chameleonic actress whose lack of any affectation makes her seem like someone who’s just walked in off the street, not a performer inhabiting a character—is gloriously understated, even in her many well-timed jabs at Michael’s perceived self-hate. Kate Walsh tamps down her usual glamour to make Holly a brash and sharp foil for her brother and sister, particularly in the pivotal scenes when they discuss how to take care of their suddenly sickly father.

And Jeremy Shamos, one of our finest stage actors, adds another indelible creation to his resume with his performance as the complex and prickly Michael, an intellectual trying not to be snobbish in front of his family, and a man whose entire being consists of a struggle between his Jewish heritage and lack of faith. Michael also gets some great speeches, like his impassioned harangue about how the Holocaust’s lessons: “We learned all the wrong lessons from the Holocaust. We learned that the world hates Jews, that the world will always hate Jews, instead of what we should have actually learned—that nationalism is a sickness and it is lethal.”

Such pointed encapsulations of his own beliefs are so brilliantly articulated by actor, playwright and director as to make If I Forget not only a compelling drama but absolutely indispensable theater.

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