Review: ‘If I Forget’ at The Laura Pels Theatre in the Steinberg Center

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I know Playwright Steven Levenson only from his work as librettist on the musical Dear Evan Hansen, so this for me is his first play. It more than fulfills the promise shown in the musical, where his book is original, incisive, and highly contributive to that show’s success on and off Broadway.

If I Forget is more of a challenge to this very welcome addition to the rising group of important new playwrights. Act I is set in 2011 in the months  just before 9/11 at a time when liberal professor of Jewish studies Michael Fischer and his wife Ellen have come to visit for his father’s  75th birthday. There he is reunited with his sisters Sharon and Holly, who is there with her second husband Howard and her teenaged son Joey. The second act occurs 7 months later when Sharon, as the unmarried sibling, has been looking after their Dad following his debilitating illness which has made him almost totally dependent. Destructive secrets and deeply felt resentments erupt amid the occasional warm and harmonious moments, beautifully rendered by Mr. Levenson’s keen ear and probing pen. It is a great pleasure to spend 2 1/2 hours with this very real and dimensional family, each member of which is sketched slowly, allowing us time to identify first with one, then with another, and most importantly to discover how much of their past they are willing to sacrifice to reach out for a fresh start.

In other hands this could have been a situation comedy, even though it deals with misalliances, self-interest, control, alienation, even death, for there  is a good deal of well earned humor to be found in this assorted bunch  bound by family ties. But Mr. Levenson is not interested in the easy laugh. He’s written characters of substance for whom we can root, and he’s held us with twists and turns in his story so we don’t know where we’re going until we get there. And he resolves that story very movingly.

He is helped enormously by the consistent truth in the performances of  the seven actors who bring these characters to blazing life. The driving force would be Jeremy Shamos’ (Dinner With Friends)  Professor Fischer, whose recently published book on Jewish history brings long held hostilities to the surface. His gentile wife Ellen is beautifully played by Tasha Lawrence (In The Next Room) finding subtle ways to remind us just how concerned she is about their absent daughter who is visiting Jerusalem at a highly dangerous moment. Sister Holly and her husband Howard tell us almost instantly who controls that household, and how love and despair cohabit in their home. Their son Joey, a bright and frustrated teenager is keenly acted by Seth Steinberg, making his New York debut with tremendous assurance and talent. Joey’s Aunt Sharon has secrets of her own and as the story requires her to  share them with her family, she too becomes a woman whose need for connection makes possible a way for her to change the direction of her life.

Tasha Lawrence, Larry Bryggman, Jeremy Shamos, Seth Steinberg, Gary Wilmes, and Maria Dizzia. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The first act is set in 2000, the second seven months later. but the story that contains a contentious election, continuing tension in the Israeli-Palestinian disputes, and the family’s eruptions of discord, make this a play totally relevant to today’s environment. Somehow Mr. Levenson captures the love, the acceptance and also the rejection of  differing values, all of which were formed in the same crucible. Daniel Sullivan has extracted from his excellent cast the very real rhythms of naturalistic speech, which is full of surprises. Watch resourceful Kate Walsh move from fury to quiet compassion, combining both with an instinctive flair for the humor in some of her histrionics. Veteran Larry Bryggman can make silence golden as he listens to his son Michael present his view of what he considers the “Jewish Problem” in America. Tasha Lawrence as the outsider, the only non-Jew in the family, shows patience and fortitude as a very caring mother and wife.

Jeremy Shamos, who is the articulate  and divisive brother and son, is so confident that his viewpoint is valid, no matter how unpopular it might be even within his own family, that he completely wins our approval –  until Maria Dizzia as his sister Sharon presents an equally valid point of view – and then we’re not quite so sure. This gifted playwright had me reacting as I would if I found myself in such a debate within my own family.

Gary Wilmes as Sharon’s eager to please husband Howard is superb as that guy who wants everyone to stay calm and play nice. The play takes him to a place he did not want to visit, and he successfully shows us what he’s been terrified of facing. And young Seth Steinberg, playing the adolescent who finds most of the adults in his family boring, moves on toward maturity in a lovely scene between him and his Uncle Michael. By evening’s end, we have come to know these people, to feel enriched by our exposure to them all.  As shepherd of this flock,Director Daniel Sullivan has done a teriffic job. These characters really do occupy this “old two story faded white colonial on a quiet residential street in Tenleytown, a white upper-middle class neighborhood in Washington, DC.

Set Designer Derek McLane has put these  people into three of its rooms but even the partly seen hallway, staircase, and outside wall have a keen sense of time and place. Jess Goldstein’s costume designs are also helpful. One look at Kate Walsh’s slacks tells us a great deal about her before she’s ever opened her mouth. So it goes with each character, right down to the manner in which young Joey wears his tattered jeans.

This is an Arthur Miller play that finds humor in all forms of human behavior, a Neil Simon play that pokes and probes more deeply, a Tennessee Williams play written with similar conflicts but told in another language.

In other words, If I Forget is very much a Steven Levenson play that I enjoyed enormously.

If I Forget is playing at The Laura Pels Theatre – 111 West 46th Street, in New York City. For tickets call (212) 719-1300, or purchase them online.

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