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The characters in Steven Levenson’s new play frequently vent their frustrations over a recent presidential election and get so angry watching CNN that they yell at the screen. There’s turmoil in the Middle East, and the struggling economy results in their having to make some hard decisions.
No, it’s not ripped from the headlines. Rather, If I Forget takes place in the years 2000-2001, which now seem like halcyon days.
The playwright — previously responsible for such works as The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin and The Language of Trees, and currently represented on Broadway with his book for the acclaimed musical Dear Evan Hansen — has a lot on his mind with this new work receiving its world premiere at the Roundabout Theatre Company. Blending intense family drama with social and political themes, If I Forget can feel overstuffed at times. But it all works beautifully, thanks to the richness of the writing, the superb performances of an ensemble that doesn’t strike a false note and the impeccable direction of Daniel Sullivan.
Set in a white, upper-middle class neighborhood in Washington, D.C., the play begins in the summer of 2000, with a family still dealing with the recent death of its matriarch. The extended clan includes Michael (Jeremy Shamos) and his wife Ellen (Tasha Lawrence), both worried about their emotionally troubled teenage daughter who’s traveling in Israel; and his sister Holly (Kate Walsh), married to successful lawyer Howard (Gary Wilmes), stepfather to her 16-year-old son Joey (Seth Steinberg). Also in the picture is their sister Sharon (Maria Dizzia), who largely takes on the burden of caring for their elderly father Lou (Larry Bryggman).
Michael exults over having just been recommended for tenure, but his upcoming book, Forgetting the Holocaust, has already stirred trouble with its controversial arguments about Israel and the Jewish people. He bitterly derides being labeled as “a self-hating Jewish studies professor and Hitler apologist who wants to wipe Israel off the map.” The manuscript has not gone over well with his family, especially his father, who didn’t even acknowledge receiving a copy. The reason for that becomes clear when Lou delivers a harrowing monologue about his wartime experience liberating Dachau. The heated arguments about the troubles in the Middle East continue throughout the play’s first act, which culminates in a cliffhanger revolving around a desperate phone call from the daughter in Jerusalem.
The second act, set seven months later, finds Lou having suffered a debilitating stroke. His need for 24-hour care prompts a heated family dispute over how to pay for it. Several of the characters have endured severe financial setbacks, and Sharon, for reasons of her own, bitterly opposes the option of selling the family-owned clothing store located in a gentrifying neighborhood.
If the above description makes sitting through If I Forget sound like a slog, nothing could be further from the truth. The razor-sharp dialogue, often tinged with mordant humor, makes the two-and-a-half-hour running time fly by. This is also one of those rare family dramas in which you believe that the characters are actually related to one another. The interpersonal dynamics will ring bitterly true for anyone who’s ever fought with a sibling over matters either trivial or momentous, and the emotional and physical toll of caring for an infirm parent is rendered with heartbreaking poignancy.
The play also blends its complex political and personal themes in uncommonly skillful fashion, with the debates over Michael’s anti-Israel position as riveting as the ones over the characters’ personal indiscretions. Some of the plot elements are admittedly not fully convincing, including a late revelation of the reason for Howard’s desperate financial state, and the stylized climactic scene doesn’t quite mesh with the naturalistic drama that has preceded it. But for the most part, the play rings with stunning emotional truth.
Each of the actors is outstanding, including Walsh, making a welcome return to the stage after a string of TV gigs. Meriting particular mention is Shamos, nothing short of brilliant as the intellectually passionate Michael who finds his professional life crumbling; and Bryggman, who makes the most of his comparatively brief stage time, especially with his concentration camp-themed monologue that is all the more powerful for its understated delivery. Much of the credit for the ensemble’s expert work must go to director Sullivan, who orchestrates the complex interpersonal dynamics with finesse.
From its multilevel set to its themes of familial conflict and personal despair, the drama bears no small similarity to The Humans, originally presented at the same theater before going on to a Tony Award-winning Broadway run. If I Forget seems destined for similar success.
Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York
Cast: Larry Bryggman, Maria Dizzia, Tasha Lawrence, Jeremy Shamos, Seth Steinberg, Kate Walsh, Gary Wilmes
Playwright: Steven Levenson
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Music & sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company
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