Some of the lines in Steven Levenson’s play “If I Forget” are so resonant they might come from your own life, even if you’re not Jewish and even if it’s 2022, not 2000. Levenson’s complex character dynamics in this family drama are fully realized on stage through Jason Alexander’s incisive and perceptive direction of eight exceptional actors.
That’s a lot of superlatives, but “If I Forget” is the kind of play that reminds us what theatre can be—provocative, engaging, funny, poignant, mesmerizing—larger than life, even on The Fountain Theatre’s intimate stage.
The story centers on three grown siblings visiting their aged father’s home in Washington, D.C. at the turn of the millennium. Middle sibling Michael (Leo Marks), a Jewish studies professor, and his wife Ellen (Síle Bermingham) are first to arrive, speaking by cell phone (a relatively new device in 2000) with daughter Abby, who is touring Israel.
Abby is talked about rather than portrayed—we hear Michael’s protective concern for her contrasted with Ellen’s support of her freedom, and learn second-hand about her torturous grappling with forces she can’t control.
A spirit or ghost—a spirited ghost, perhaps (danced by Caribay Franke)—haunts the stage between scenes, flitting like a fairy and interacting with characters on a seemingly subconscious level evinced by deft staging, such as leading them to their seats and pushing in their chairs before vanishing as scenes begin.
Who she is becomes clear as the play unfolds, and her interactions with Michael are especially poignant and telling about his emotional limitations. This abstract figure is an addition by Alexander to Levenson’s original play, serving to elevate the play’s themes to a metaphysical level while also engaging the audience as the actors rearrange the set.
Also interesting in terms of staging is how the actors not performing in a scene sit on the periphery, as if bearing silent witness to something acted out time and time again.
Just as we get comfortable with the initial characters, we are introduced to elegantly dressed big sister Holly, a lively burst of bossy energy as played by Valerie Perri, whose verve delights in every scene. Holly is married to banker Howard (Jerry Weil) and mother to Joey (Jacob Zelonky), a typical young teen, though a bit slow.
Joey, like Abby, will eventually carry the family’s generational torch, though that legacy—both culturally and materially—becomes increasingly uncertain as the play develops. Levenson said he wanted to explore in this play “new fault lines” in Jewish identity developing at the time, following increased secularism and intermarriage among Jews, and we see glimpses of that in Joey’s uncertainty and Abby’s mental suffering
The detailed, somewhat dingy set (designed by Sarah Krainin) also evokes loss—at once the home’s basement, bedroom, dining room and living room, with props expertly changed by the actors between scenes. Background shelves contain decades worth of bric-a-brac, some with price tags from the family’s store that father Lou (Matt Gottleib) used to run and now leases to a Hispanic family for low rent. Also visible are their mother’s wheelchair and medications from before she passed.
The set reflects how the siblings, though each full of life, are dealing with death, not just in their family but the culturally inherited weight of “the six million,” as they call victims of the Holocaust. Michael is even about to publish a controversial book on the Holocaust—unless the protest signatures it’s rapidly garnering interfere.
Money and what it means to be Jewish come to a head in the second act. Lou’s health declines and younger sister Sharon (Samantha Klein)—who had cared for the mother and now the father—can no longer meet his needs alone.
But for various reasons—including the consequences of Howard’s pathetically hilarious forays into the nascent internet—no one has the money to afford a full-time caretaker. Michael, never hesitant to “forget” his heritage, proposes a practical solution that breaks the family’s heart.
Sadly, the siblings’ heated discussion of Medicare and the financial and emotional costs of caretaking are true even now, more than twenty years after the play is set. Anyone who has cared for an infirm parent may recognize the exact same arguments with their siblings.
Even the play’s many political discussions, though referring to events and politicians in 2000, seem relevant today, making clear how history can repeat itself—a point blown up in the final scene as Michael (joined by the surrounding cast) tells Joey about Abby’s ecstatic yet devastating vision of time while in Jerusalem.
Along the way, several scenes stand out for their frank hilarity, such as Michael and Howard taking swigs from a vodka bottle for courage before speaking the truth to each other; Holly sharing with Michael her arsenal of anti-anxiety drugs she carries in her purse; or the siblings getting riotously real about Michael’s book, the extent of Sharon’s relationship with the store tenant and Holly’s business pipe dream.
Levenson—who also wrote the book for hit Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen”—times the revelations and zingers perfectly within the natural rhythms of language, creating jaw-droppingly funny or shocking moments.
And all the actors deliver those lines and inhabit their well-drawn characters with aplomb, Alexander’s experienced sensibility guiding their formidable talent. Each character is believably portrayed, with the three siblings played passionately as well. We feel and root for each, even when their decisions or behavior might be questionable.
“If I Forget” will most certainly generate discussion afterward about the ramifications of the resolution and the significance of the ending. In that way, the play invokes the best function of theatre—allowing us to experience life through performance and reflecting on the truth of our own. Definitely a must see!
“If I Forget” continues at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles, through Sept. 10, with performances Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $45 (Mondays are pay what you can) and can be purchased by calling the box office at (323) 663-1525 or visiting Fountaintheatre.com. Run time is 2 hours and 45 minutes with intermission. Masks are required.