12/18/2022 IF I FORGET Broadway HD
JULY: NEW YORK COUNTY
A coupla weeks ago, I posted some thumbnail reactions to another series of scripts from Dramatists Play Service. I went out on a limb and commented that If I Forget, by Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen, the screenplay of Tick, Tick, …Boom!, showrunner for Fosse/Verdon) was my favorite of the bunch, and literally begged any Atlanta Theatre to schedule a production.
Well, that hasn’t happened yet, but I did find a tape of the original Roundabout Theatre Co production on Broadway HD, so of course I had to watch it, and of I course I now have to write about it.
In a nutshell, a script that came alive on the page for me lands with even more impact when put in the mouths of talented actors and a video interpretation that does not kneecap their efforts. This is a supremely well-written play that appeals to heart, to mind, and to conscience, tackling complexly layered issues that most people want to reduce to easy sound-bytes. In fact, that is really the point – though set in 2000 and 2001 before the 9/11 attacks, it nevertheless paints a portrait of America that is recognizable today – a world in which politics is not about issues or policies, but about “beating THEM,” a world in which “truth” is whichever fiction is mouthed by those from “our side” and “lies” are whatever is in disagreement.
Act One begins on July 29, 2000. It is Lou Fisher’s 75th birthday, and his scattered offspring have come to pay their respects. Oldest son Michael is a middle-aged professor of Jewish history, recommended for tenure, and about to publish a deeply researched treatise on American Jewish obsession with the Holocaust. Daughter Holly is the wife of a wealthy lawyer who longs to turn her Interior Decorating hobby into an actual business. Youngest daughter Sharon put her career on hold – she’s a kindergarten teacher – to care for their late mother.
Lou owned a Men’s Clothing store in a constantly changing part of New York City, which he now rents out to a Guatemalan immigrant family, who have turned it into a bodega. Michael’s daughter (his wife Ellen seems to be the butt of his sisters’ sarcasm) Abby is in Jerusalem on a teen tour to discover her “spiritual heritage.” Holly’s son Joey is at that rebellious stage where he hates his parents and hates his school, and would rather just play video games than have anything to do with his extended family.
What can possibly go wrong?
Act Two jumps ahead to February 18, 2001. Lou has had a stroke and needs constant care. Michael’s book has made him persona non grata at his university and cost him his job. Holly’s husband has lost all his money to an internet scam artist. Sharon has started a relationship with the married renter of the family store. And Abby (who never actually appears on stage) has had a total mental breakdown and may be in store for a lifetime of managed care.
So, you may ask, what sets this play apart from the typical entrant in the “Family Ties That Bind and Gag” oeuvre? Vivid characters and sharp dialogue certainly make it better than average, putting it on a par with the likes of August: Osage County. So, maybe not so much “set apart” as worthy of sharing the same conversation, making the same harsh points about family dynamics, pointing to long-held grudges and slights blown out of proportion by years and silences.
Michael is an Academic, an intellectual whose siblings don’t understand his writings, and who read them at the most facile level imaginable. His book is a valid discussion of how the Holocaust is used as an excuse to validate anything that helps Israel, no matter how misguided or against American interests. But he made the mistake of titling the book “Forgetting the Holocaust,” which makes him a “self-hating Jew” and provocateur. How can one make sense of an argument if one can’t get past the title.
Michael: You hear it all the time: “ It could happen again. Never forget, it could happen again!”
Sharon: Because it could happen again.
Michael: It already has happened again. It happened in Bosnia, it happened in Rwanda. It just didn’t happen to us. We learned all the wrong lessons from the Holocaust. 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.
If this snippet makes it sound like Michael is the “intellectual hero” of this play, trying to prove that it is not antisemitic to be against unquestioned adherence to everything Israel, Mr. Levenson won’t make it easy. Michael can be self-righteous and arrogant, even when he is passionately defending his theses (and actor Jeremy Shamos is oh-so-convincing delivering those monologues).
But the clearest rebuttal is given by Lou, a WWII veteran who was part of the company that liberated Dachau. He very rightly rebukes Michael for making the Holocaust an academic construct. His memory of it was very real, very visceral, filled with horrors and smells and cruelty and an in-your-face reminder of what the Holocaust really was, not an intellectual topic to banter around the dinner table:
You can imagine the smell. Coming from everything. From the gas chambers. From the bricks of the crematorium. From the dirt under your feet even. On your boots. The ones we found who were still alive … it was the worst with them. The smell.
And then he turns it around by describing how the survivors rounded up any remaining guards and slaughtered them, essentially validating Michael’s thesis:
The Germans who killed their parents, or maybe their brother or their children, right in front of them. The Germans with full stomachs, uniforms starched. The took the shovels, men who didn’t weigh a hundred pounds, you could see the bones sticking out of their skin, they took the shovels, and they smashed their faces in over and over again. On and on. …
The Americans, they just watched. We just, we stood and we watched. And we were glad. My God. We were glad. I’m still glad.
For you, history is an abstraction. But for us, the ones who survived this century, this long, long century. ... there are no abstractions anymore.
This is a family who argues like a family, who love like a family, who worry about their legacy like a family, who try to make sense out of their divergent world views, like a family. The play is structured with scenes of conflict and remembrance and passive-aggressive game-playing, and bitter recriminations, and a lot of laughter honestly constructed on shared experiences and shared pain.
And the original Roundabout production, staged in 2017, is a brilliant collection of actors and designers, bringing the Fischer household to life in all its messy glory, keepsakes and old posters, boxes of memorabilia and memories suppressed. The only “name” you may recognize is Kate Walsh (Grey’s Anatomy, Emily in Paris, 13 Reasons Why) as Holly who turns in a funny and arch performance. The rest of the cast includes Larry Bryggman as Lou, Maria Dizzia as Sharon, Tasha Lawrence as Ellen (Michael’s wife), Gary Wilmes as Howard (Holly’s husband) and Seth Michael Steinberg as Joey. They all make the Fischers seem like a family, unspoken sub-text as obvious as if it had been scripted.
The play ends with a coda spoken by the cast as a call-and-response litany of the history of Jerusalem – essentially Abby’s vision that leads to her breakdown. It is an almost musical chorus of conqueror and conquered, one faith slaughtering the one that came before, all eventually “disappearing beneath the sand.” Yes, the title, taken from Psalm3 137** is usually taken to mean remembrance is how we deal with the past and with today’s struggles. But it is also a reminder to remember the dark moments, the wrong decisions, the prides and mistakes that had a real cost, that created a real pain.
Just because Michael’s thesis is “an abstraction,” does not mean it is wrong.
This is a play worth watching, worth remembering.
And I STILL hope an Atlanta Theatre decides to stage it!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #IfIForget #BroadwayHD)
1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4 How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.