Where would American playwrights be without the vagaries of capitalism to fuel their family dramas? The unpaid electric bill in “The Glass Menagerie,” the stinginess of a husband-father in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the breadwinner who can’t close a deal in “Death of a Salesman.”
In Steven Levenson’s magnificent new play, “If I Forget,” which opened February 22 at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, money is the least of anybody’s problems in the first act. However, by the end of this full-bodied two-and-a-half hour production, money has come to shape everything. The drama’s three loving, warring siblings agree about nothing, until the very end when they all raise their hands about what to do with their inheritance, even though Dad is not yet dead.
Before we get to the Holocaust, Jerusalem Syndrome, and the unraveling of the Oslo Accord in 2000 during the Bush-Gore 2000 election fiasco, it should be noted that “If I Forget” is a very funny play. No comedy on New York’s boards right now can match it laugh for laugh.
There are many miles and years between the Jewish angst of Levenson’s play and the Southern Gothic guilt of Tennessee Williams’s best plays. What the two writers share is an ability to capture the way families speak in code. On the surface, the talk is innocuous, but in the background new bricks are being placed to make old walls even higher.
The humor lies between what’s said and what’s meant and the history that the latter reveals. It’s Blanche du Bois telling Stella her weight gain is becoming but she “just has to watch it a little around the hips.” And it’s Stella telling her sister how she likes to wait on her because “it reminds me of home.”
Even though the three adult Fischer children in “If I Forget” don’t see much of each other anymore, they have that same kind of banter: part compliment and part comeuppance, and if the hurt isn’t intended, one of them will incorrectly (or not) feel injured. The miraculous thing about Levenson’s talent is that he makes us understand the Fischers’ private code even though it’s not our family. And even if you aren’t Jewish.
He also understands how a family, as much as its various members hate each other, has the ability to lock out an in-law with only a few words.
The Fischers’ mother has recently passed away, and even though the father (Larry Bryggman) is alive and well, he hasn’t responded to the book manuscript his professor son, Michael (Jeremy Shamos), sent him six months ago. Levenson wisely delays telling us the exact nature and title of the book until we’re far into act one.
Let’s just say it’s controversial enough to define every conversation Michael has with his Gentile wife (Tasha Lawrence), who hasn’t been given a copy to read, and his older sister (Kate Walsh) and her husband (Gary Wilmes), who also haven’t been given a copy and wouldn’t read it anyway, and his younger unmarried sister (Maria Dizzia), who read it unbeknownst to her brother and made a copy for her rabbi to get his opinion.
Michael doesn’t want to talk about the book, but when he’s prodded, he can’t stop talking about it. The responses of those who haven’t read it range from “Oh” to “Wow,” and from those who have read it: “You sound like Pat Buchanan.”
The three Fischer siblings could not be more different in their outlook on religion, raising children, and America’s relationship to Israel, and yet to the credit of Levenson, the actors, and director Daniel Sullivan, they’re very much from the same family, a family that will always make the two in-laws feel like in-laws, despite their being the peacemakers.
The Fischers are always ready for a good argument, even when there’s not much disagreement. As Michael comments at one point, “Falafel is originally, it’s actually an interesting history, in terms of the politics of falafel.” If you can argue about falafel, you can argue about anything.
The siblings take great umbrage at false accusations leveled against them, only to prove those accusations quite true in the second act, when the problems with Michael’s unpublished book begin to compete with the family’s other big concern. For Hamlet, it’s to be or not to be. Since the Fischers are American, it’s to sell or not to sell. Levenson also enjoys a good argument, obviously, and he presents every side of the property issue, as well as the history of Jews in America for the last 150 years.
“If I Forget” is packed with revelations, but Levenson is so expert with his exposition that the pregnancy, the online affair, the mental breakdown, the career implosion, and the exploding debts never turn into soap opera. To tell more of the story here would be a mistake. An amazing play.