A family drama about legacy, Jews and real estate hits home

From left, Richard Fancy, Robin Abramson and Susan Rome are members of a Jewish family living in Washington in “If I Forget” at the Studio Theatre.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

What constitutes a legacy in an era of disposability and instant gratification? Steven Levenson’s rangy family saga “If I Forget” wrestles down questions of Jewish identity, faith, family fidelity, history and what it means to be an American Jew at the dawn of the 21st century, flaws and all.

Studio Theatre’s kitchen-table drama feels right for right now as it dives into the fraught family dynamics of the upper middle class Fischer family. Its deep-rooted connections to the story of white flight and gentrification in Northwest Washington makes it the perfect vehicle to open Studio Theatre’s 40th anniversary season.

Now firmly ensconced at the corner of 14th and P Streets, NW, down the block from some of the city’s tonier restaurants and boutiques, Studio arrived in the sketchy 14th Street corridor in 1978, at a time when drugs, prostitution, and crime reigned over the neighborhood two decades after the post Martin Luther King riots and then Metro construction took its toll. Today, renovated row houses there go on the market for millions. This neighborhood figures prominently in the Fischer family legacy and rests at the center of the conflict the three adult siblings must hash out. And for those followers of Studio’s “Jewish” programming, this is a far more thorough and less cynical look at the forces of family and legacy than its two time hit “Bad Jews” of a few seasons back. Interestingly, both plays could have – or should have – fit nicely into Theater J’s repertory, just a few blocks down P Street at the Edlavitch DCJCC.

Levenson, a Bethesda native, draws on his intimate knowledge of the late 20th-century middle class Jewish community and their rise from working class immigrants starting at the turn of that century. By the time of Levenson’s play, they’re “landed gentry” of a sort, sending the third- and fourth-generation to pricey private schools and Ivy League colleges.


The family legacy in question here is a store, Haberman’s, a fictional haberdashery that catered to denizens of 14th Street, from the early 20th century through the post-World War II boom, up until those 1968 riots decimated most of the area’s businesses. By 2000, when Levenson sets his play, the men’s clothing store that offered bargain-priced goods, first for Jews and later for an African-American clientele, has been closed for decades. In its place a Guatemalan family rents the building and runs a dollar store.

Avid theater goers might recall Levenson as the Tony Award-winning book writer for another highly wrought suburban family drama: “Dear Evan Hanson,” which premiered at Arena Stage, dealt with a misguided teen’s guilt. Levenson also spent three seasons writing and producing the Showtime series “Masters of Sex.” “If I Forget,” though, feels like his most personal play yet, drawing from his intimate knowledge of hometown Washington and of interpersonal family dynamics.

As a “Washington play” he eschews the politics of the nation and conflicts between lawmakers, lobbyists, bankers and the like, for a more parochial approach. The politics are local here, while the issues remain universal. He also knows his environment, namechecking the traffic on Wisconsin Avenue and other local landmarks. These are the politics of a city in flux, its character changing with the unassuageable march of gentrification.

That other Washington, of presidential races and international peace negotiations, serves as a backdrop rather than centerpiece to hometown DC. The big picture Washington stories of the era – the contested Bush-Gore election, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a new Intifada – serve as background noise to the Fischer family’s internal crisis.

The homey Fischer residence, a two-story A-frame house in Tenleytown, featuring the upstairs childhood bedroom of middle son Michael and a well-lived in living and dining area below, is finely designed by Debra Booth. Director Matt Torney keeps the lengthy – though finely written – banter moving. And though illness, mental and physical linger, there are sharp barbs and much needed laughs along the journey. Yet the evening clocks in at about two hours and about 50 minutes. Levenson might want to do some judicious cutting to trim some repetitive arguments and tighten up the piece.

Jonathan Goldstein gives middle brother Michael a brusque exterior, but soft center. An anomaly, he’s an atheist Jewish studies professor who teaches Jewish history and rabbinic literature. But his demise occurs when he authors a controversial book arguing that the American Judaism has become overly reliant on Holocaust guilt in both its religious and cultural formation. Needless to say, this pushes buttons, both at home and in his university.

Older sister Holly, played by Theater J regular Susan Rome, is the pushy and argumentative sister, while saintly younger sibling Sharon (Robin Abramson), a kindergarten teacher, has taken on the grueling task of caring for her aging parents. But she doesn’t hold her tongue and all three have learned the art of argument – so familiar in insular Jewish families.

Young adult children, save for the high school-aged son of Holly, the rude, simpleminded Joey Oren, played with a whiney, angsty teenage keen in his voice by Joshua Otten, are unseen, but their problems – eating disorders and a possible schizophrenic break for an offstage daughter figure heavily in many family discussions about Israel. And the Zionist state is one subject of many the siblings disagree on vehemently.

“If I Forget,” though set in 2000 and 2001, doesn’t play like a period piece – save for the few jokes about cell phones, necessary only for doctors or drug dealers, and AOL accounts. In examining the question of belief and identity of American Jews at the cusp of the 21st century, Levenson hits a tender nerve. For today’s often politically divided American Jewish community – spliced into ardent Israel supporters who side with Trump and Netanyahu and liberals who pay their dues to Peace Now – it’s hard to find common ground let alone common decency when these estranged segments of our Jewish community attempt to talk.

Michael makes a case that American Jewry has become entrenched in Holocaust Judaism to the detriment the religion and culture that reach back millennia and contain multitudes of other tragedies and triumphs of the Jewish past. An unrepentant atheist, Michael posits an argument that became commonplace among intellectuals aware two generations after the Holocaust, younger Jews weren’t buying into Jewish life saturated with Holocaust imagery and guilt. It’s the age-old question – will my grandchildren be Jewish? – wrapped in new bunting.

But memories are long and the Fischer patriarch, Lou, the mostly withdrawn Richard Fancy, makes his evocative point that the atrocities of the Holocaust are more than a generational pain. For him, even in his waning years, “Never again” is not a mere battle cry; it was a formative part of his life and how he raised his family.

Not often does a playwright cut to the quick and reveal cultural touchstones of Jewish life that feel simultaneously deeply personal and entirely universal. “If I Forget” is who we are and where we are as a Jewish community now. Amid the multitude of subplots and other issues Levenson has thrown into the mix, what shines through is that the writer has taken the pulse of 21st-century American Jewry. The diagnosis? Its heart is still beating – sometimes erratically.

In wrestling with the past in all its turmoil Levenson leaves the future – of the Fischers and of American Jewry – in uncharted territory. The Kaddish isn’t imminent, but is poetically alluded to as the lights dim on a family legacy.

“If I Forget,” through Oct. 14; Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington; tickets $20-$90; call 202- 332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.  

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