Review: “If I Forget”, an eternal dispute on heritage and inheritance

Asya Danilova

OnStage New York Critic

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, 
let my right hand forget her cunning.
Psalm 137:5

“If I Forget”, a new play by Steven Levenson, and directed by Daniel Sullivan, at the Roundabout’s Laure Pels Theater, focuses on three siblings of Generation X. Their kids are absent physically, or too young to care (or so the siblings think), and their parents either dead or departing to the annals of history. But history is not just a silent text in a schoolbook; history is memory, history is politics, history is cultural and religious heritage. Steven Levenson masterfully braids together a family living room drama, the political atmosphere of the era, and a discussion on what it means to be a Jew in The United States today.             

In the summer of 2000, three adult siblings and their spouses visit home, where they grew up, for their father’s 75th birthday. Life scattered them about, so as everybody is catching up, we find out that Michael (Jeremy Shamos), a professor of Jewish studies, is up for tenure and is working on his third book, “Forgetting the Holocaust”. 

Michael says in particular, that “Israelis use the Holocaust so American Jews would support their politics in the Middle East,” and the secular world should stop producing films about the Holocaust to stop the politicized usage of history. Michael’s wife, Ellen Manning (Tasha Lawrence), is supportive of his controversial project, which, as opposed to his previous works, is aimed towards a broader audience and could actually sell some copies. 

The youngest sister, Sharon Fisher (Maria Dizzia), seems to be the only religious one in the family and strongly disapproves of Michael’s point of view. She passionately argues that by writing and publishing such a book, Michael commits one of the worst sins, the betrayal of his own people and his father, who was amongst the troops liberating Dachau. 

The older sister, Holly Fisher (Kate Walsh), with her husband, Howard Kilberg (Gary Wilms), try to stay distant in this argument. Holly’s attention is concentrated on another tense spot of the family’s history, a store owned by their dad, which he rents out to a family from Guatemala. Spoiled with her husband’s money, Holly is obsessed with the idea of opening her own interior design business in the family store. She emphasizes that the “Mexican bodega” owners pay unprecedentedly low rent and the building is in desperate need of renovation.             

Sharon takes a stand for the renter’s family, who has been good tenants for a long time. Besides, she has personal reasons for defending the Guatemalans and is skeptical about Holly’s enterprise, thinking that it is just a passing fancy. 

There is also a third generation, represented by Seth (Joey Oren), the dim teenage son of Holly and Howard, who seems to only irritate everybody. Abby, the daughter of Michael and Ellen, is never on stage but plays an important role in the play. On the verge of descending into mental illness, she took her birth right trip to Israel and makes her father worried sick.  And that is not only because of the safety issues in the region but also because of her increasing interest in Judaism.

Pardon my lengthy exposition, but for once I am excited about the circumstance of characters from a contemporary, realistic play. “If I Forget”, by Steven Levenson, slightly dragging in the beginning, is a great family drama that unfolds against the backdrop of broader political issues. The second act of the play takes place in February of 2001, in a post-9/11 America with George Bush elected president over Al Gore. 

In this chilling political climate, the atmosphere in the Fisher family heats up. Three siblings gather in the family nest again, though this time the reason is not celebratory. The patriarch of the family, Lou (Larry Bryggman), is getting increasingly worse and now three of his kids need to figure out how to pay for his care. The financial demand reveals that everybody’s lives went downhill. It also becomes evident that the three siblings have different views on what cultural and family heritage is, and what they should do with their inheritance.  

“If I Forget” opened on February 22nd and runs through April 30th in the Laura Pels Theatre at 111 West 46th Street, New York. Tickets are $79 and can be purchased over the phone  (212.719.1300) or online. You can also try your chance at winning $25 tickets via TodayTix app’s lottery. Photo: Joan Marcus