Last night I took in the Roundabout Theater’s production of If I Forget, the new play by Steven Levenson directed by Daniel Sullivan. It’s a play about a Jewish family in suburban D.C. dealing with the passing of the matriarch, the declining years of the patriarch, and their legacy — both narrowly, in the form of a store that was once the family retail business and which is now rented out to a Guatemalan family; and more broadly, in the form of Jewish heritage. The son, Michael (Jeremy Shamos), is a professor of Judaic studies who is also an atheist and a Norm Finkelstein-style vituperative critic of the normative American Jewish community. The youngest, Sharon (Maria Dizzia), is devoted to her aging father, to Jewish religion and the Jewish people, and as yet unmatched, her life a series of comic romantic fiascos. And the older daughter, Holly (Kate Walsh) is the “normal” one, an anxious and materialistic princess with few skills and fewer thoughts in her head. The group lacked only a wise son to complete the quartet from the Haggadah and make it a perfect choice for Passover.
Levenson has a fine ear for the way these people talk, and while each of the children is clearly intended to represent a type, and a “side” in a larger argument, they are first and foremost members of a believable and authentic family. I’ve met all of these people — I’ve seen all of them at kiddush many Saturday mornings — and their apparent contradictions (the radical who despises Jewish paranoia about persecution is also one terrified that his daughter, on a trip to Israel, will be killed by a terrorist; the conservative who cleaves to tradition is also the one having an affair with a married man) are actually signs of their solidity, evidence that all of these ideas that seem so important to them are merely intellectual responses to a deeper emotional truth that may be very much at variance with those ideas.
And for the first half of the play, the family dynamics firmly undergirded the surface ideological battle. Michael has a book coming out that calls for Jews to “forget” the Holocaust, by which he means to stop making of that calamity a kind of dark idol that centers their consciousness; his father, Lou (Larry Bryggman) has read the manuscript but has avoided talking to his son about how much it pained him (Sharon has no such scruples). The transparency of their struggle — the son’s need to assert his independence from his father playing out as an insistent demand that the entire Jewish people endorse his rebellion; the younger, less-accomplished child’s need to supplant the favored son’s place and win the father’s favor — is precisely what grounds it.
But in the second half, the mechanics of plot begin to creak. Levenson piles on reason after reason for every member of the family to be invested in to disposition of that store, reasons that are entirely self-interested and that do not pertain to its metaphoric status as a legacy. And in the end, they have nothing to pass on to their own children.
I must admit, I found that dissatisfying in its neatness, but in a sense it’s no less neat than The Cherry Orchard, which looms large behind any play about a family struggling with a symbolic piece of real estate. The deeper dissatisfaction was, I think, intended by the author. Lou at the end of act I sits his son down to talk to him about his book, but mostly he recounts to him his own memories of the liberation of Dachau. His son, he avers, cannot understand what it was like, cannot imagine — you had to be there. And when he recalls his fierce gladness that he and his fellow G.I.s gave the few surviving inmates an opportunity for revenge on the concentration camp guards, he is saying that feeling as well is one that Michael cannot understand because he wasn’t there.
Of course, Lou is right. But if Lou is right, then what does remembrance mean for a generation that wasn’t there? If Sharon’s second-hand nostalgia is wrong, and Michael’s furious rejection is wrong, and Holly’s blithe indifference is wrong, then what is right? The play seems to be saying that we can’t simply forget a trauma of the Holocaust’s magnitude, but neither can we actually remember it. The only legacy is the cutting family argument, one that can only end by liquidating the legacy itself.
One other thought in that regard. I saw the play accompanied by an actress friend who is half Palestinian, and I could see her flinch at the opening lines of the play — which are all about the collapse of Oslo peace process (the play is set in the year 2000). I looked around at the mostly older, mostly Jewish crowd, then leaned over to my friend, and whispered, “this play knows its audience — and you aren’t in it.” And she smiled. We talked afterwards about her reaction, and what she said is that it doesn’t so much bother her that the play wasn’t aimed at her or didn’t include her perspective, because why would it? She isn’t in that house, that room, that family. If she were included, it would be false and intrusive. But what bothered her was a feeling that an equivalent play about a Palestinian family could not be successfully mounted in New York.
And I politely but firmly disputed that. The equivalent play would be about a Palestinian family in suburban Detroit, with three kids, one of whom has married up, one of whom is a firebrand, and one of whom has turned politically apostate, lambasting his siblings and his father for their casual antisemitism and for their willful blindness to the civilizational psychotic break afflicting the Arab world. Could such a play be mounted? I don’t see why it couldn’t. Would it be understood rightly by the audience? That’s a tougher question. There’s a real privilege in being able to air one’s dirty laundry in public — and it’s a measure of communal security for one to be able to do so easily. I’m not sure the Arab American community is at the point of feeling that sort of security, that kind of privilege. I hope one of their playwrights decides to find out.
If I Forget runs through April 30th at the Laura Pels Theater.