Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy once wrote, but many of the things that push those familial buttons are the same —financial disagreements, sibling rivalries, religion, debates over what’s best for children and aging parents, and the special kinds of pain only the ones we love most can inflict.
All of those things are on display in If I Forget, Steven Levenson’s sharp and thoroughly touching new Off Broadway drama, which takes place in the early aughts but feels very of-the-moment, down to debates over presidential candidates.
Set in a white, upper-middle-class neighborhood in Washington, D.C. in the final months before 9/11, If I Forget centers on Michael Fischer (Jeremy Shamos, Noises Off), a Jewish studies professor who reunites with his two sisters to celebrate their father’s 75th birthday. But, naturally — this is a family gathering, after all — there are more factors at play. Michael is getting ready to publish his latest book; it poses a controversial argument about American Jews and their relationship to Israel and the Holocaust, and it has already prompted a petition against him at his university. Older sister Holly (Kate Walsh, of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice) is hoping to take over their father’s store for her new interior design business (“Places and Spaces,” laughably, is what she plans to call it), but that would involve closing the bodega that’s currently being run by a Guatemalan family—a family that Michael’s youngest sister Sharon (Orange is the New Black’s Maria Dizzia) has become close to. She’s coming off a recent breakup and feeling resentful toward her older siblings for not being around both during their mother’s illness and now as their father may require more care.
Levenson has already proven himself as a craftsman of compelling, poignant drama — he wrote the book for this season’s tearjerker musical hit, Dear Evan Hansen — and his skills serve him well again here. As the Fischers come together on two separate occasions over a period of months, they clash as secrets surface and long-held resentments come to light. Each sibling has his or her own version of their family history and personal baggage that they bring to the metaphorical table, and Shamos, Walsh and Dizzia make those family bonds — not to mention the frustrations, anguish, and love that come along with them — feel authentic.
Direction from Tony-winner Daniel Sullivan and a rotating, multi-level set from Derek McLane make the drama feel bigger than the confines of the Fischer family home, and the setting and subjects they tackle really resonate, from discussions about elections and debates over Israel to the Middle East peace process and Judaism as a both a religion and a cultural identity. (Before or after the show, take some time to read the placard of statistics about Judaism in America that’s posted in the theater’s vestibule — I found them extremely interesting and illuminating, especially in light of the play’s content.)
If I Forget succeeds both as a thoughtful family drama filled with wit and as a compelling dissection of the world we live in. A monologue near the end of Act 1 from their father (Broadway vet Larry Bryggman) about the horrors he saw while liberating Dachau during World War II is a breathless showstopper, and a line from Michael about the world learning the wrong lessons from that horrific time sparked applause from the crowd (“We learned that the world hates Jews, that the world will always hate Jews, instead of what we should have actually learned – that nationalism is a sickness and it is lethal”). Such sentiments speak tellingly about the present and about how we should consider the future. A-