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If I Forget

. . .we all want to save history, hold onto our history. . . — Michael, as he and his siblings confront a family crisis. . . and the playwright makes his final metaphoric connection between their differences about how the past should be honored rather than forgotten.
If I Forget
Jeremy Shamos, Seth Steinberg, Maria Dizzia, Kate Walsh (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Steven Levenson took time away from writing thoughtful straight plays to doing the book for the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen . But now he's back at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater with a meaty new family drama, If I Forget.

As Dear Evan Hansen is a multi-faceted musical with a powerful story, so If I Forget is a family tapestry into which Levenson has woven multiple thematic strands. The main conundrum explored concerns how best to keep the 20th Century's horrific Jewish trauma from being forgotten. But he's also piled on problems vis-a-vis aging parent, mental illness, inter-marriage misguided handling of careers, money and real estate.

No wonder If I Forget needs two and a half hours to tie all these strands together into an often hilarious dramatic whole. Even if you prefer your shows not to exceed 90 minutes and find all this a bit too much, you won't be bored. Nor do you have to be Jewish to relate to the members of this family.

While Mr. Levenson grew up in similar environment as the Fischers and during the same period, this is not an autobiographical memory play. It is, however, a play with a satisfying large cast of fully developed characters and big themes — shades of Arthur Miller's dramas, and more recently Tracy Letts' August: Osage County.

if i  forget
Jeremy Shamos and Kate Walsh (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The play is book-ended by a gathering of the Fischer clan to celebrate Lou Fischer's (Larry Bryggman) 75th birthday in the first act — and a more somber get-together to deal with his long-term care in the second.

The first act's family event in 2000 presents a more hopeful parallel to the larger and more downbeat ones pertaining to the collapse of the Middle East peace talks. The family's good news is focused mainly on Michael Fischer (Jeremy Shamus), a liberal college professor about to get tenure and publish a book reaching a wider audience than his more academic publications. By the time the Fischers return to their suburban homestead a year later, things have turned darker all around.

A second Bush has just been elected so 9/11 overhangs the play like an ominous cloud.

Michael is still at the center of the family situation. True to temple-going youngest sister Sharon(Maria Dizzia), his intention to provoke readers of his book to remember the Holocaust in a different way has been misinterpreted and backfired on him. . . Lou Fischer's declaration while in the midst of his loving family that being seventy-five is "a fucking nightmare" has come true. . . Howard Kilberg (Gary Wilmes) , the rich husband of oldest sister Holly (Kate Walsh) rich husband has proved himself to be incredibly stupid. . . and Holly's son Joey (Seth Steinberg) is even more into his own world than ever. Abby, the troubled daughter of Michael and his wife Ellen (Tasha Lawrence), is an important but never seen presence in both acts.

This being a family drama, the siblings have plenty to be contentious about. But they're inextricably bonded by memories of their shared family histories.

The play is rather too filled-to-the-brim with provocative ideas, some of which are hard to believe. But these credibility stretches aren't sufficient to spoil the many a pluses on offer. Setting the heartbeat that brings everything to rich theatrical life is Levenson's dialogue. It allows his characters to be hilariously funny even when the conversation is about intensely disturbing issues.

Much credit for keeping us engaged belongs to the actors who portray the Fischers. If Jeremy Shamos had a belt with notches for award worthy stage portraits, his Michael certainly calls for a notch to be added to his. He delivers the play's lengthiest speeches with natural ease and can wrest laughs from even the tensest interactions.

Kate Walsh is terrific as the self-absorbed Holly, as is Maria Dizzia as the youngest sister whose beliefs are directly the opposite of Michael's. Despite relatively small roles, Gary Wilmes, Seth Steinberg and Larry Bryggman, make big impressions as Hollie's husband, her teen aged son and the paterfamilas. Each gets a moment to shine.

Under the direction of Daniel Sullivan the scenes and conversations flow smoothly into each other. All that talk is never allowed to get too talky.

The physical production is stunning. Derek McLane's two-level set is a bit reminiscent of The Humans , which didn't revolve as this one does, but also premiered at this theater. The work of the costume, lighting, sound designers is impeccable.

Though not originally intended as a commentary on current affairs, If I Forget feels remarkably timely as we follow President Trump's controversial undermining of a two-state Israel. There's one particular pertinent reference in Michael's most passionate speech. In it he condemns Jews who he feels have compromised their history of "refusing to be silent in the face of empire and death in exchange for the seat at table. . . For Joe Lieberman on the presidential ticket." That's the same Joe Lieberman who didn't make it to the White House as Al Gore's running mate but who was recently back in the limelight supporting Betsy DeVos at her much contested Secretary of Education confirmation hearings.

To conclude, don't forget to put I Forget on your "be sure to see it" list. And with the NEA in danger of losing the government's already minimal support let's give a special round of applause to the Roundabout for continuing to support the work of playwrights with something to say — and say it well.

Below are links to other Steven Levenson plays we've reviewed at Curtainup:
The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin
The Language of Trees
Core Values

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If I Forget by Steven Levenson
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cast: Larry Bryggman (Lou Fischer), Maria Dizzia (Sharon Fischer), Tasha Lawrence (Helen Manning), Jeremy Shamos (Michael Fischer), Seth Steinberg (Joey Oren), Kate Walsh (Holly Fischer), Gary Wilmes (Howard Kilberg).
Sets: Derek McLane
Costumes: Jess Goldstein
Lighting:Kenneth Posner
Sound & Original Music: Dan Moses Schreier
Stage Manager: Kevin Bertalacci
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, including 1 intermission
Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre
From 2/02/17; opening 2/22/17; closing 4/30/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/19 press preview

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