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If I Forget - Steven Levenson

If I Forget

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

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Memory changes. The way we regard memories -- individual and collective -- changes. This message comes at you fast and strong in Steven Levenson's new play, If I Forget, at the Laura Pels Theatre. While the playwright's Dear Evan Hansen enjoys an esteemed Broadway run, Levenson, now engrosses audiences confronting the contemporary world's arresting sociopolitical issues and brings them firmly into the heart of one family.

The family is the Fischers, gathered in the old family home to celebrate their ailing father's 75th birthday. The time periods are July 2000 and February 2001 -- after the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David, and pre-9/11.

The only son, Michael, a college professor of Jewish Studies, has just finished his book on Jewish cultural heritage where he urges Jews to downplay the Holocaust and Israel. It is controversial, to be sure, and later wracks havoc socially and academically.

Fluidly directed by Daniel Sullivan,  Jeremy Shamos is a stand-out as Michael, fearless in his convictions but wanting his father's praise. He dedicates the work, about to be published, to his father, Lou,  who was a World War II veteran. Months ago, he had sent Lou a galley of the book, which was never acknowledged. A highlight moment comes when Michael delivers a passionate monologue about his book's focus, spurring audience applause.

Played by Larry Bryggman, Lou soon has a response of his own.  He does not have much to say, but when he does, it is a poignant memory about his entering Dachau,  bringing a devastating end to Act I. Act II opens months later and one week after Lou is paralyzed by a stroke, adding another layer of family demands and self-examinations.

Lou's three children, Michael, Holly and Sharon, are worried about their father's health and financial well-being, their outrage about Michael's new work, and their own personal stresses. They harbor shared, often clashing memories of their family history, their religion and Jewish heritage. The eldest sibling, Holly, played with self-centered snap and humor by Kate Walsh, is closer to Michael, although concerned with her own social standing.  The youngest and only religious child , Sharon (Maria Dizzie), is a schoolteacher who has been caretaker to their father, and relishes in the role of martyr even as she is betrayed by her cantor and boyfriend.

All three have opposing ideas about the failing family business, a store in a down-market area. Revitalizing it would preserve a family tradition, but selling would bring in much needed cash they all can use.

Secondary characters add color as well as gravitas. Michael's supportive wife, Ellen, is seamlessly portrayed by Tasha Lawrence. A social worker, Ellen is usually the family peacemaker, but in this situation, she is unable to bring about any conciliation between Michael and his sisters. She and Michael have additional worries about the couple's mentally troubled daughter, Anna, who never physically appears in the play, but her existence speaks about the relationship between her parents.

Holly's wealthy husband, Howard, played by Gary Wilmes, stands behind his authoritative wife until his own foolish actions threaten their well-being. Their son, Joey (Seth Steinberg), is a detached teen who turns out to know more than anyone realizes.

One might say that Levenson's familial dynamic is somewhat overstuffed with sub-plots, yet this remains a powerful drama with crisply defined characters and sharply counterbalanced with humor. Derek McLane's rotating two-tiered set lighted by Kenneth Posner displays a comfortable lifestyle of a family in a Washington D.C. suburb. Jess Goldstein's costumes neatly contrast Holly's chic style with Sharon's tee shirts and loose pants.

A provocative production where boldly honest performances explore beliefs and compromises, If I Forget is not an easy play to forget. Nor should it be.


If I Forget
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th Street, NYC
http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/If-I-Forget.aspx
Previewed: 02/02/17. Opening: 02/22/17. Closing: 04/30/17
Playwright: Steven Levenson
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Cast: Larry Bryggman, Maria Dizzia, Tasha Lawrence, Jeremy Shamos, Seth Steinberg, Kate Walsh and Gary Wilmes.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. One intermission
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors