Saturday, March 11, 2017

If I Forget

B

If the goal of Steven Levenson (The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, book for Dear Evan Hansen) was to write a play that would elicit lively discussion afterwards, his new play at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre is a success. While at its core an intimate family drama, the play connects the personal to a wider arena of religious, political, sociological and philosophical concerns. We meet the three Fischer siblings, all in their forties, in July 2000 at the family’s longtime home in a middle class Washington neighborhood. They are gathered to celebrate their recently widowed father’s 75th birthday. The middle child Michael (the superb Jeremy Shamos), although an atheist, is a professor of Jewish studies at a New York area university where he has just been recommended for tenure. He mentions in passing that he is faculty advisor to Students for Nader. He and his gentile wife Ellen (Tasha Lawrence) have an emotionally troubled college-age daughter Abby who is currently on a trip to Israel. Michael was opposed to letting her go because peace talks between Arabs and Israelis have just collapsed and he fears for her safety. Elder daughter Holly (the assured Kate Walsh from TV’s Private Practice), a dilettante who fancies herself an interior decorator, has a bratty teenage son Joey (Seth Steinberg) and a shallow but wealthy lawyer husband Howard (Gary Wilmes) who is Joey’s stepfather. The younger daughter Sharon (Renata Friedman, u/s for Maria Dizzia), an unmarried teacher, who has borne the brunt of caring for her late mother and her ailing father, never fails to remind her siblings of that fact. Sharon has recently broken up with her boyfriend after finding him in bed with the [female] cantor. We learn that Michael has just completed an incendiary book called Forget the Holocaust that suggests that American Jews should stop using the Holocaust as a reason to give Israel a free pass for some of its actions. (If you think it unlikely that a professor would publish a controversial book likely to damage his career while he is awaiting tenure, just google Norman Finkelstein.) Although Michael sent his father Lou (Larry Bryggman) a manuscript of his book to read six month ago, Lou has never said a word about it. In a moving scene near the end of the first act, Lou describes what it was like to liberate Dachau. The second act takes place six months later, not long after the Supreme Court has interceded to elect Bush. Lou has suffered a stroke. Michael’s book has had consequences. The family has gathered to decide what to do about Lou’s care. Lou’s only asset is his former clothing store, now leased to a Guatemalan family at a below-market rate. Sharon’s opposition to selling the store because it is the family legacy has another less noble motive. Holly’s plan to rent the store for her own nonexistent design practice is mysteriously not supported by her husband, who turns out to have an unsavory secret. Michael pushes hard to sell the store, betraying some confidences in the process. At play’s end Joey asks Michael about his cousin Abby’s condition. We learn that she had an experience in Jerusalem that was either transcendent or symptomatic of her worsening mental condition. The play shifts gears from naturalistic to expressionistic in its final scene, which didn't work for me. One can fault the play for being overstuffed; there’s enough plot for three plays. On the positive side, the play presents a compelling picture of family dynamics, fortunately relieved by frequent flashes of humor. It raises important questions about Jewish identity in America today that seem even more relevant in the light of recent headlines. The dialogue is sharp and the cast is excellent. Derek McLane’s revolving two-level set and Jess Goldstein’s costumes serve the play well. Daniel Sullivan (Proof, Rabbit Hole) directs with his usual skill. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

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