‘If I Forget’: Ancient questions and elusive answers

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In his new play, If I Forget, at the Roundabout’s Laure Pels theatre, playwright Steven Levenson gives us a compelling portrait of an American family, one whose survival is defined by the cataclysms of the 20th Century. This intricate three-generation story depends on the timeless themes of birthright, religious identity, and what to do with dad. But it is the specific challenges of the Fischer family situation that make this production, directed with a seamless immediacy by Daniel Sullivan, such a powerful forum for big ideas, chiefly that of Jewish identity.

This is a pre-9/11 play. But it manages to elicit an uneasy dread over that attack and the subsequent (and very current) bare knuckles of American politics. Set in a home in suburban Washington, D.C., the play sees three sibling adults pit their own needs and desires against each other, with the fate of the family estate and the needs of one surviving parent as the battle stakes. We’ve seen this starting line before. But the approach of author Levenson, director Sullivan and their impeccable cast elevate this basic outline with a rich abundance of nuance. 

Levinson concocts a brilliant device to illuminate the question of contemporary American Jewish identity. He is candid about this ambition in his program comments, and a vivid poster in the lobby (always a welcome supplement to a play of ideas) evokes the difficulty of any pat answers.

Without straying from the rivalries of family and the naturalistic confines of form, the untidy scrum of faith, politics, legacy, scripture and assimilation are all laid open for debate. And, thanks to the depth of the writing and the conviction of the actors, you never doubt the legitimacy of any viewpoint.

Even the Holaucost itself is called into question as an identifier, a bold position that is counterbalanced here by an eloquent evocation from a living witness.

I won’t delineate the method or intricacy of this fascinating illumination of faith, family and nation, but please know that If I Forget is also spiked with generous humor, all grounded in familiar household routine. There is a lot to admire here. Each character has a distinct agenda in the clockwork of plot. The sibling rivalry is one for the ages. And the novelty of new technologies (in the year 2000) is likewise sure-fire.  

The reach here is nothing short of total. The play’s title is taken from Psalm 137 (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…”), which hearkens to a war over civilization’s frailty, and the tangled multicultural primacy of Jerusalem and the toll of bloodshed achieved in the names of state and faith are evoked with poetic brilliance. 

In focusing his microscope on the labored infighting of one family, playwright Steven Levenson illuminates not only the question of what it is to be Jewish but also what it is to be human. 

 

The Roundabout Theater Company production of If I Forget runs at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre in the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: 212-719-1300.

 

 

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