Steven Levenson’s play “If I Forget,” a Roundabout Theatre Company production, is a family drama rich in both laughs and angst. Snappily acted by a sharp cast, the drama unfolds against a background of debate about the relationship of Jews to their culture and religion, as well as to Israel. That theme is worth exploring more, but while interestingly posed, it is overwhelmed by problems encountered in the Jewish family being depicted.
Levenson is skilled at mixing seriousness with laugh lines and that renders “If I Forget” consistently entertaining. Daniel Sullivan’s direction makes the most of the comic elements, abetted by performers who extract the maximum out of Levenson’s brittle dialogue and observations. But there are aspects that don’t ring true. More about those later.
(Before the play, located in a residential neighborhood of Washington, D.C., begins, we see an elderly man, whom we later know as Lou Fischer (Larry Bryggman), sitting in a chair reading. What is it that directors and playwrights hope to achieve by such useless staging? This is just a personal gripe of mine expressing annoyance at the frequently used gimmick and doesn’t affect the heart of this play.)
When we get into the action that begins in July, 2000 and continues into the following February, we find Michael Fischer (Jeremy Shamos) upset that his 19-year-old daughter has gone on a trip to Israel. His wife, Ellen (Tasha Lawrence), sees it differently. Fischer is more realistic about their daughter, who has a serious eating disorder, is depressive and, as we ultimately learn, has to be institutionalized.
But the daughter’s trip is used to illuminate Michael’s attitudes toward Judaism. He is a professor of religious studies who has no use for conventional emphasis on Jewish identity and religion. He is on a tenure track, yet has published a controversial book that gets him in trouble, a book that maintains the Holocaust should be downplayed, not continued as a touchstone of Jewish life.
His father, Lou, before he is stricken with a paralyzing stroke, has a poignant, impassioned speech in which he chides Michael by detailing his World War II experience of what he saw in the liberation of Dachau. It is the opposite of what his son believes. Michael gets a strong speech of his own in another part of the play when he rants about the behavior of prominent Jews in the context of what’s going on in the country and the world.
Especially interesting in the family relationships is the interplay between Michael and his sisters, Holly and Sharon. Holly (Kate Walsh), who has a sharp tongue and whiplash behavior, isn’t much of a thinker and nourishes the idea of establishing an interior design business. She has cards printed, but that’s it. Walsh’s performance could well be noticed at awards time, as is also the case with Shamus as Michael.
Sharon (Maria Dizzia), a teacher, has an affinity for the family store, contemptuously referred to at one point as now just a bodega, and it turns out that she has a special interest there. Financial worries, including taking care of the stricken Lou and Michael’s never-to-get-better daughter touch off a huge argument when the suggestion of selling the business arises.
During the play we witness loud arguments between Holly and Michael, and yet there is a bond between them, a bond that we also feel within the family despite the confrontations. Humor is sprinkled throughout, sometimes thanks to the characterization of Joey (Seth Steinberg), the rebellious, snarky teenage son of Holly and her husband Howard. Accused of acting like a thug, Joey proclaims, “I am a thug.”
Unfortunately, the author goes astray on occasion. Howard (Gary Wilmes) is a lawyer, yet he gets himself into unbelievable trouble that a lawyer could have contained before it reached the heights that create a financial and marital crisis. His letting a situation get out of hand in the way depicted is beyond stupid.
Also the ending of the play comes across as gimmicky, with the views of the ill and disturbed daughter who had gone to Israel used as a touchstone for solemn group chanting about Jewish history to drive home the point of continuance.
Flaws aside, this family drama comes across in its way as more vital and enjoyable than the justifiably lauded and admirably fine-tuned exploration of a different sort of family in“The Humans.” At the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed February 25, 2017.