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REVIEW: Barrington Stage’s ‘If I Forget’ sophisticated but only half way there

With a plot this rich, expectations for what happens run high, but Act 2, set six months later, sadly disappoints.

If I Forget
By Steven Levenson
Directed by Jennifer Chambers

The first act of “If I Forget” is perhaps the best composed and dynamically plotted piece of theater with ensemble acting the Berkshires has seen so far this season. It’s summer 2000 (election year of Bush v. Gore—remember how that doozy turned out?). Agnostic professor of Jewish studies Michael Fischer (J. Anthony Crane) and his nonpracticing Christian wife. Ellen (Kathleen Wise), visit his father’s home in a white, middle-class section of Washington, D.C., a year after his mother’s death. Michael expects to be awarded university tenure, although there’s some brewing political opposition to his upcoming book, “Forgetting the Holocaust,” in which he theorizes, provocatively, that Jews have lost their historic traditions by allowing themselves to be identified solely with the Holocaust. The Fischers have an emotionally challenged college-aged daughter who is on study in Jerusalem.

Robert Zukerman as Lou and J. Anthony Crane as Michael in the Barrington Stage Company production of ‘If I Forget.’ Photo: Scott Barrow

Michael’s sisters, Holly (Laura Jordan) and Sharon (Lena Kaminsky), don’t value Michael’s intellectualism much and think less of his ideas about Jewish history and Israel politics the more they learn about his book, a draft copy of which he had sent his ailing 75-year-old father, Lou (Robert Zuckerman). Holly’s an amateur interior designer, comfortably affluent in a second marriage to financier Howard Kilberg (Mitch Greenberg), whose politics go no further than voting Republican no matter what. Holly spends most of her time nagging her lazy teenage son, Joey (Isaac Josephthal), who wears his jeans below his butt. Sharon, a schoolteacher, takes care of Dad and plays noblesse oblige to the Latinos who rent the storefront in Black downtown Washington still owned by Dad and that had been the family’s clothing store business for two generations. Dad looks back to where he started: His people were Russian Jews; his wife’s, German.

Cleverly crafted by playwright Steven Levenson, who won a Tony Award for the book of the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” “If I Forget” is remarkably sophisticated in unpacking not only intrapersonal family conflict but also historical and generational tensions between secular and religious Jewish traditions. Michael argues, to his family’s discomfort (even though they are nonpracticing Jews), that Zionism, which started out as nonreligious movement, has become synonymous with Judaism. Confronting his father, he points out that, in the 1960s, when many secular Jews were active in civil rights, his family, as white merchants in an all-Black neighborhood, was all about business. Dad protests the store’s pricing was always fair; it all fell apart, he proclaims, “when Martin Luther King got shot” (The family real estate was saved from being torched in the 1968 riots.)

Kathleen Wise as Ellen and J. Anthony Crane as Michael in the Barrington Stage Company production of ‘If I Forget.’ Photo: Scott Barrow

Tensions mount. Levenson concludes the first act with a solemn and emotional wallop: Dad, a World War II veteran, reveals, for the first time in his life, father to son, his most horrific memories as a U.S. serviceman at the war’s end. Dad rips it wide open: So you think you know about the Holocaust, kid? Don’t tell me about history.

With a plot this rich, expectations for what happens run high, but Act 2, set six months later, sadly disappoints. Dad requires home care. Michael’s academic fortunes get complicated. A plot development involving Michael’s brother-in-law, Howard, doesn’t ring true, unlike everything that’s been frontloaded in Act 1. The storyline involving Michael and Ellen’s daughter veers to the melodramatic, as does a subplot with younger sister Sharon. Then, to conclude, the story suddenly careens into the abstract with a communal, spiritual evocation.

Still, “If I Forget,” for its first half, is a masterclass in playwriting and ensemble acting. Levenson’s dialogue is especially spot-on, character specific. Never for a moment did I not believe character relationships, especially the sibling dynamic among Michael, Holly and Sharon. (As an only and sometimes eggheady brother, I know what it’s like to get caught in the crossfire of two sisters.) Special kudos to Ms. Jordan as pain-in-the-ass sister Holly and to Mr. Crane, who, with the most demanding role as Michael, makes credible, beginning to end, the burden of being son, brother, husband and father, and the quiet tragedy of a man caught between the history he interprets and the reality he endures.

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If I Forget plays on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company’s Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Sept. 8. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or go to barringtonstageco.org.

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