New York City Theater
"If I Forget"
Roundabout at Laura Pels Theater
It can’t be easy to make poetry out of the Holocaust. But that’s what Larry Bryggman does so powerfully in Steven Levenson’s controversial, altogether absorbing “If I Forget.” In this searing study of the uses and misuses of how we both remember and categorize the past, Bryggman is Lou, the aging father of three siblings at odds with one another.
Bryggman describes, with a perverse beauty, what liberated Jews did to their Nazi captors at Dachau: “They 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 smashed [the guards’] faces in, over and over again.”
Recently widowed, Lou is on the brink of dementia. For his birthday, his children visit his home outside of Washington, D. C. Like many family gatherings, so familiar in so many family plays, arguments fill the spaces in between affection. The time is July, 2000, days after the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian Camp David agreements.
As the family explores their personal histories, they also explore the history of their heritage. The title is from the Bible’s Psalm No. 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning / If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
University professor Michael Fischer, one of Lou’s three children, is an atheist who teaches Jewish Studies. His new book, “Forgetting the Holocaust,” creates a scandal, engendering petitions and putting his bid for tenure in doubt. Fighting back, he claims his book is meant to be more provocative than literal. We need to remember, but not use, not dwell, not make a cottage industry out of that most horrific historic event, he argues.
On one level, the family needs to decide how to take care of dad. Where will the money come from? Should they sell the store Lou used to have, now leased to a Guatemalan family? (The money plot line is the play’s weakest. The subject leads to a slack second act, taking place in 2001, featuring an unlikely tale of a wayward credit card.)
When one of his sisters accuses Michael of dragging not only the family but six million Jewish victims through the dirt, his answer is, “It’s all the same dirt. . . . The only thing that connects us to one another, that connects us to ourselves even, are ghosts. I don’t believe in ghosts.”
Under Daniel Sullivan’s spry direction, action pivots in a blink from serious to amusing, with the actors leavening their emotional concerns with self-deprecating humor. In addition to Bryggman, an actor at the height of his powers, Jeremy Shamos is a revelation as Michael. Studious, pragmatic, defensive, he creates someone reticent about unleashing his erudition, yet condescending to those who misunderstand his scholarship.
As the sisters, Kate Walsh is an acerbic Holly, Maria Dizzia a conflicted Sharon. As Ellen, the shiksa married to Michael, Tasha Lawrence is quietly conflicted about her place: observer or participant? Gary Wilmes is a nebbishy Howard, Holly’s husband, while Seth Steinberg is a properly snotty teenager.
Levenson ends his play with a mysterious, surreal coda. It caps an evening with no easy answers.
--David A. Rosenberg
March 6, 2017