By Karen Isaacs
If I Forget, the new play at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater, sounds intriguing. Yet, I found it dissatisfying.
Why? Playwright Steven Levenson has crammed so many ideas and plot elements into the play that you are left dizzy trying to keep it all straight.
The premise of the initial theme is relevant: what does it mean to be a Jew in the America of the 21st century?
The play is set in 2000-2001, before 9-11 in the family home in Washington, DC. The three adult children — a son and two daughters have gathered because their 75- year-old father, widowed a year before, is not doing well.
The three are recognizable types. The son (Michael), is a professor of Jewish Studies living in NYC. He has a non-Jewish wife (Ellen) and one daughter. Holly is the eldest child; she is married to an attorney in the area and is living a very upper, upper middle class life. She doesn’t work though she is thinking of opening an interior design studio. And then there is Sharon, the youngest child. She teaches but has been taking care of Dad; before that had moved into the house to help take care of her dying mother.
Each represent a different type of Jew: Michael, despite his profession, views himself as an atheist and never attends services. Holly observes but only attends services on the High Holy days while Sharon has become quite observant.
In addition, Michael, who has been recommended for tenure, has just written a non-academic book that is controversial.
Adding to the family concerns and debates include what to do about the property the family owns in Washington. It was a family store for generations, but the father retired a number of years ago and it is now a dollar store run by some Guatemalan immigrants who pay below market rent. The neighborhood is gentrifying and the property is worth millions. Did I mention that their father was one of the US soldiers who helped liberate Dachau?
Certainly that might seem enough for a two act play: the family dynamics (lots of hurt
feeling and sibling rivalries), the differences in views on their religion and what Michael’s book espouses, and the problem of the property.
But Levenson has felt necessary to add even more. So many that it seems slightly preposterous that all of these are converging on this one family. Even Job deserved better.
I can’t go into all the details, but let’s say that Michael’s daughter has an increasing interest in Judaism and is mentally frail. Holly’s teenage son is going through typical teenage behavior, but the real problem is that her husband also has a secret. And Sharon? She feels taken advantage by her siblings as well as having a secret regarding the store.
The superficial debate that escalates in the second act which takes place in 2001 after the father has had a stroke, is what to with the property. It could pay for Dad’s care which is going to require live in, full-time health. Sharon wants to keep the property since it has been in the family since the 1880s, but she also does not want to increase the rent to market rates. Holly believes she and her husband can take over the property, renovate it, pay rent and use it for her nascent business. Of course, she has no really business or interior design experience. Michael is caught in downward cycle of his career because of the book.
It is difficult to quickly explain Michael’s thesis though he does frequently in very academic terms. From what he says, it relates to how the Holocaust has been used to bind American Jews to Israel and to each other; it is easy to understand why it was taken out of context and why it caused such anger.
Director Daniel Sullivan has infused the production with as much reality as possible given all of the complications. Set designer Derek McLane uses a revolving, two level set to show us both the living and dining rooms of the house as well as the upstairs bedroom that was apparently their mother’s. The costumes by Jess Goldstein effectively delineates the differing characters, from the teenage son’s bagging pants (the fashion of the time) to the women’s apparel that telegraphs their personalities and characters.
Jeremy Shamos as Michael is really the center of the play. The role is partly stereotype; the favored son who is geographically distant from the family. The intellectual/academic who is often oblivious to the realities; except that at times he is the most realistic of all; the women including his wife seem particularly unrealistic.. Shamos gives a nuanced performance that helps you feel both annoyed by and sympathetic to Michael.
The women are less fully developed. Ellen (Tasha Lawrence) as Michael’s wife is the least fully rounded of the characters; she is given to little do in the play and seems more a symbol of Michael’s feelings about his religion than anything else.
Maria Dizzia has the unenviable task of playing Sharon, the youngest and most annoying of the family members. Sharonboth plays the victim and uses passive-aggressive tactics against her siblings in an effort to get her way.
As Holly, Kate Walsh is another women who seems removed from her family’s reality and has been sheltered by her husband. Lawrence’s performance captures that type of woman.
Seth Steinberg does an excellent job capturing the teenage Joey. He is by turns tuned out and tuned in. Every parent of a teenager will recognize his behaviors. It is a role that has few lines but lots of reaction which he captures beautifully.
As the father and grandfather, Larry Bryggman has his moment in the first act talking about his army experience; it is riveting.
Overall, If I Forget can confuse you. You finding it engaging whether you think it just too much like a soap opera or a thoughtful piece. I, for one, felt the real issues got lost in all the complications.
If I Forget is at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, through April 30. Tickets are available at roundabouttheatre.org.