Religion is ever with us, for good or ill. We humans seem to be hardwired with a need for the numinous. Steven Levenson’s play, If I Forget, begins with a psalm and ends with a vision, the psalm an exhortation for Jewish people not to forget their heritage, inviting misfortune if they forget. This stark prayer sets up a compelling and satisfyingly dramatic show about the tension between religious tradition and modern secularism. The new production at The Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood, directed by Jason Alexander, is a terrific showcase for its excellent cast and Levenson’s sharp writing, although it also features one major misstep.
In 2000 Washington D.C., Michael (Leo Marks), a college teacher, has returned to his father’s home for a visit. His married sister, Holly (Valerie Perri), hassles him about not visiting the family often enough, while his single sister, Sharon (Samantha Klein), chastises him about his treatment of his teenage daughter, Abby (Caribay Franke), who suffers from various mental conditions. Their father, Lou (Matt Gottlieb), is needing more help as he gets older, and the decision about what to do with his shop – whether to keep or sell it – becomes more urgent as the story progresses. In the middle of all this, Abby has a religious vision (or mental breakdown?) in Jerusalem, and Michael’s world swiftly begins to collapse.
Marks anchors the show with a brilliant performance as the complicated Michael, an intelligent if perhaps overconfident man who makes decisions he later pays for dearly. He gets the best speeches in the show and delivers them with superb skill, and he charts every beat of the character’s downfall with vivid emotional precision. Perri is hilarious as the overbearing Holly, the poster child of somebody who is culturally Jewish but not especially pious, and Klein excels as the put-upon Sharon, guilt-tripping everyone around her. Gottlieb is good if underused as Lou, as are Síle Bermingham, Jerry Weil and Jacob Zelonky in supporting roles.
Director Alexander gets great performances from his cast, and he paces the show expertly – it’s a three-hour production and it flies by. The major misstep is the additional of silent dance sequences between every scene, which feature the otherwise never seen Abby. These sequences seemed so out of place compared to the rest of the play that I read the script and discovered that they’re not in there. I presume this means that Alexander added them, and the kindest thing to say about this decision is that the sequences are unsuccessful and strand poor Franke in a lot of dance moments that don’t feel organic to the rest of the show.
Levenson’s writing is smart and funny, and he’s as adept at low-key character building as he is with explosive emotional confrontations. He’s also not afraid to introduce controversial topics, which he does when he reveals that the book Michael is writing is about how he feels Jewish people should “forget the Holocaust” and refocus on secularism. The entire play is really about tradition versus secularism, discussed in many ways, but although Levenson makes strong arguments on either side, he never conclusively makes his own opinion on the matter clear. On the other hand, the play concludes with Abby’s religious vision, which ends with all cultures big and small swallowed into the sand, so perhaps that is an answer of its own.
If I Forget is presented by and at The Fountain Theatre and plays through September 10.
Tickets are available at the Fountain Theatre.