Where: Victory Gardens Theater,
2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through July 7
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Dysfunctional family dramas are a dime a dozen, but Steven Levenson’s “If I Forget” is so stuffed with story lines, sibling conflicts, and salient issues that it has been compared to epics like Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County.”
But since Levenson, who also wrote the book for the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” is tackling Jewish-American identity on the cusp of the 21st century, I found myself thinking of James Sherman comedies that Victory Gardens produced years ago—only this play has higher stakes and more substance, along with every bit as much humor and wit, if not more.
Thanks to Devon de Mayo’s sensitive direction and the first-rate cast, we also see the playwright’s greatest strength: the ability to meld the personal and political, so that the characters speak to both heart and mind. All the performances are strong, as are the technical elements, making this a fine finale to Victory Garden’s season.
The first of the two acts, which are set in “a white colonial house in Tenleytown, Northwest Washington, D.C.” – Andrew Boyce’s bilevel set is impeccable—takes place on July 29, 2000. The Camp David summit has failed, resulting in the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the U.S. presidential contest is underway among George W. Bush, Al Gore, and Ralph Nader. The Fischers have gathered to celebrate the 75th birthday of patriarch Lou (David Darlow), and the occasion is especially fraught because his beloved wife recently died.
Six-and-a-half months pass between the first act and the second which is set on February 18, 2001. Bush has been inaugurated, and Lou has had a stroke, causing his three adult children and their spouses to convene again to argue, mainly about the responsibility for elder care and how to pay for it.
The center of attention most of the time is Michael (Daniel Cantor), the middle sibling, the only son, and the only one who doesn’t live in the Washington area. A Jewish studies professor at a university, he’s also the least religious of the three. In fact, he’s an atheist.
The evening opens with recently arrived Michael in an upstairs room with his non-Jewish wife Ellen (Heather Townsend), who is on the phone with their emotionally troubled daughter, Abby, who is on her Birthright trip to Israel and feeling at home there. Dad disapproves and worries about impending violence, while Mom is encouraging. Abby never appears in the play but nonetheless looms large, right up to the magical realist ending, which seems out of keeping with the overall realism.
We soon learn that Michael’s forthcoming book “Forgetting the Holocaust” not only reflects his ambivalence about Israel, it’s likely to be incendiary. Taking a page from Norman Finkelstein (whose “The Holocaust Industry” came out in 2000), he asserts that contemporary Judaism has become “a religion and a culture of, frankly, death and death worship” because the memory of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis is used to make Jews support Israel unquestioningly.
Several months earlier, Michael sent a copy of his book to Lou but never heard back. The discussion between father and son, who also is proud of being up for tenure, is the centerpiece of the first act, with both giving speeches that garnered applause on opening night, even though they were contradictory.
While Michael defends his position in a tirade, Lou, a World War II vet who helped liberate Dachau, describes what he saw there and why he won’t forget. “For you, history is an abstraction,” he says quietly but passionately. “But for us, the ones who survived this century, this long, long century, there are no abstractions anymore.” Darlow’s straightforward, heartfelt performance is the stunning highlight of the show.
But how Michael could think his father would like the book defies belief, as does his obliviousness to how the timing of its publication might affect his consideration for tenure. Other plot devices seem equally contrived, particularly those involving money and a store that has belonged to the Fischers for ages.
Currently rented to a Guatemalan family for a pittance, the store becomes a bone of contention for the siblings in their heated second-act debates about how to care for Lou. Sharon (Elizabeth Ledo), the youngest daughter, a kindergarten teacher, and her father’s principal caregiver since his wife died, has a very personal interest in keeping things as they are. Holly (Gail Shapiro), the eldest, wants to rent the store herself to indulge her fledgling interior design business. To do this, she’s depending on her second husband, Howard (Keith Kupferer), a successful attorney. But Howard has lost huge sums in a tawdry sex and credit card fraud scheme that’s as improbable as Michael’s cluelessness about reactions to his book. Joey (Alec Boyd), Holly’s typical teenage son, wonders what his inheritance will be if the store is sold for the millions it’s worth in the now gentrified neighborhood, which is Michael’s suggested solution to the problem.
Resentments and recriminations erupt, secrets come out, and ultimately there’s no resolution. We’ve arguably learned more about the characters, but this is the weaker of the two acts. The finale, courtesy of unseen, self-punishing Abby, reminds me of the last lines of Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” an elegy for an age perhaps but a cop-out as an ending for a play.