If you like arguing with your relatives about the Israel-Palestinian conflict so much that you want to see other people’s relatives doing it, then boy, oh boy, is there a new off-Broadway play for you.
If I Forget is American Jewish identity politics writ large. In fact, a large poster covered with facts from the ubiquitous, infamous 2013 Pew study is on prominent display in the Laura Pels Theatre’s lobby.
In this ably written and directed show—playwright Steven Levenson is enjoying a great season, since he’s also the book writer of Best Musical contender Dear Evan Hansen—If I Forget tells the story of family of a widowed patriarch living in suburban Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2000 and early 2001. Think: George Bush’s first election, the Second Intifada, the early days of Birthright (yes, it features in the plot). Stewing at the center of the family tsuris is the middle child of the Fischer family, Michael (a fantastic Jeremy Shamos), a Jewish studies professor and an avowed secularist. He’s written a book that rocks the family boat, linking the specter of the Holocaust to Jewish fear, and ultimately, American Jews influencing U.S. politics and Israel having free reign in the Middle East. (His book is entitled Forgetting the Holocaust, and the play takes its title from Psalm 137’s, “If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem…”)
Much arguing ensues, some inspired by the book, some not. Putting a Jewish family onstage to yell at each other about identity politics isn’t a new move for the Roundabout Theatre Company. Like If I Forget, Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews premiered there, back in 2012. This new work is in many ways the better play; unlike Bad Jews, it feels less like a mouthpiece for the playwright’s opinion, and the payoff for a very long run-time is that you have time to develop sympathy for (almost) every character. But there are still similar pratfalls for a play where characters tend to fit dramatic archetypes and then have intense political perspectives to match. Nuanced discussion of the American Jewish experience is welcome; “Pew Study: The Play!” is not. And this play drifts back and forth across that line.
“We’re white people now,” laments Michael of American Jewry at the end of a particularly heated monologue. “We’re respectable. We’re nothing. Nothing at all.”
Between the arguing, and the neuroses, and the breast-beating, there’s not much room for sophisticated discussion of Israel and the Jews, American and otherwise. On the one hand, you have the anti-Zionist leftist professor, decrying that his people who once gave the world Emma Goldman, now have naught to offer but Alan Dershowitz. On the other side, you have his sister who entirely conflates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, who votes for Bush because Republicans “actually like Jews. They want them in their party.”
For American Jews, private angst and the Jewish state is both very real, but also both somewhat abstract. So it’s no wonder that the discussion of the Middle Eastern conflict onstage remains extremely subjective. But while it’s impossible for a play to be comprehensive in its exploration of Jews and views, the uninformed may leave If I Forget thinking that the issue of American Jews on Israel is a false binary. While it attempts to synthesize these opinions and the family’s domestic drama, the play generally does better with the latter, though it’s just as trope-heavy—there’s pill-popping, affairs, mental illness, etc., that familiar cocktail of middle-class dysfunction. With apologies to Tolstoy, in the American theater, many families seem unhappy in frightfully similar ways. Still, the cast and direction (by Daniel Sullivan) are both excellent.
But what would happen if this play took place in 2017? The more things change, the more they stay the same; Bush taking the 2000 election feels in some ways like Trump’s upset, while today’s mess in Israel has new details, though certain keywords, like Jerusalem, still dominate. And statistically, the issue has only grown more divisive. But along generational lines; there’s a pattern. Young adults who were below 18 when this play takes place are far more likely to support a two-state solution, something If I Forget barely addresses.
Still, if American Jews make up a family; they’re much like the Fischers: petty, unwilling to just shut up and listen to each other, imbued with real love and affection but bogged down by conflicts both real and imagined. Some of the most riveting moments of the play happen when one person just listens to another, like when Michael’s father (Larry Bryggman) recounts his story of liberating Dachau: “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 play isn’t this season’s Oslo, mired in policy wonkishness. It’s arbitrary, angry, passionate, and exhausting. You might find it cathartic to watch. Or, you may just want to wait for your family’s Seder.
If I Forget plays at the Laura Pels Theatre through April 30.