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If I Forget
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: Steven Levenson's If I Forget confronts modern Jewish self-image

By
Adam Feldman
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★★★★☆

“Next year in Jerusalem”: For hundreds of years, diasporic Jews have repeated this wish on Passover. What might it mean for Jews today, now that Israel exists and they aren’t there? Set at the turn of the 21st century, amid a worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Steven Levenson’s family drama If I Forget is a trenchant depiction of American Jewish identity at a crossroads, caught between the shadow of Nazi genocide and the threat of future—or perhaps present—disappearance. “We’re white people now,” laments Michael (the excellent Jeremy Shamos), a radical leftist academic and atheist for whom Jewishness is bound up in the quest for social justice. “We’re respectable. We’re nothing.” Have modern Jews traded their moral birthright for a mess of security?

Michael thinks so. Seemingly modeled on real-life controversialist Norman Finkelstein, he has written a book called Forgetting the Holocaust, whose thesis—that Jews have surrendered to “death worship” and use the Holocaust to justify Israeli aggression—is deeply offensive to his immediate family: his elderly father, Lou (Larry Bryggman), a former soldier who helped liberate Dachau; his older sister, Holly (a hilariously tart Kate Walsh), a well-to-do Washington dilettante; and his other sister, Sharon (Maria Dizzia, openly wounded), a schoolteacher with a complex romantic life. Reunited at their family home in Washington, D.C., they form shifting alliances as they work out their values, priorities and responsibilities.

Directed by Daniel Sullivan, who has a gift for raising dialogue to its smartest expression, If I Forget is ambitious and often very funny. It has the sparky intracultural conflict of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, the propertied-socialist guilt of Tony Kushner’s iHo, the looming family dread—laid bare on Derek McLane’s rotating bi-level set—of Stephen Karam’s The Humans and Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County. Although some of Levenson’s plot twists are contrived, the play is fearless in its confrontation of Jewish self-image before a New York audience that surely includes many Jews. On the night I attended, the spectators erupted into applause after Michael’s passionate defense of his book—not necessarily in agreement with him, and not just because Shamos has cannily built up to this explosion, but because the writing takes exciting risks. No one in the play offers an equally compelling counterargument to Michael’s tirade, perhaps because Levenson trusts the audience to fill in the blanks. He gives us a lot to talk about, and a play to remember.

Laura Pels Theatre (Off Broadway). By Steven Levenson. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. With Jeremy Shamos, Kate Walsh, Maria Dizzia. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. Through Apr 30. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam

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