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A play about baby boomers deciding what to do with their family’s real estate on 14th Street NW would seem tailor-made for Studio Theatre, especially as the theater, located on that street for decades, celebrates its 40th season. Unfortunately, If I Forget, the play that opens Studio’s season, is not really about the redevelopment of neighborhoods and the cost of real estate. While that subject comes up in the pages of Steven Levenson’s script, the play is really about history, misery, and the beliefs we are unable to let go of.
It’s the summer of 2000 when we meet the Fischers in their family home in Tenleytown. Michael (Jonathan Goldstein), a university professor in New York, and his wife, Ellen (Julie-Ann Elliott), arrive to celebrate his father’s (Richard Fancy) 75th birthday with his older sister, Holly (Susan Rome), and his younger sister, Sharon (Robin Abramson). Negotiations between Israel and Palestine have broken down at Camp David and the siblings are on edge. Holly and Sharon, who continue to observe the Jewish traditions they grew up with, worry about what this means for Israel, while Michael, who teaches Jewish studies but disavows organized religion, appears more tolerant of Palestine and waits on news from his unseen daughter, who is on a Birthright trip to Jerusalem.
Once we learn of its significance, the family’s relationship with Judaism informs every line. The difference in their beliefs drives a wedge between Michael and the rest of his family, but he still insists that he is right, often at elevated volume and while looming over them. It’s a testament to the actors that their conflicts feel relatable and lived in, but the action drags as they rehash points over and over again. Studio did a better job—and had more fun—exploring the physical and emotional inheritance of Judaism when it presented Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews in 2014 and 2015.
Their father, a secular Jew who liberated Dachau while serving in World War II, speaks more about his differences with the black residents who patronized his clothing store than he does about his faith and doesn’t hold back his assessment of why 14th Street NW changed. “Martin Luther King died, so the blacks had a riot,” Lou proclaims early in the show. He remains hung up on this piece of history, convincing himself that outside forces have determined the direction his life took.
That seems to be an inherited trait, as a discussion of a family member’s health in the second act leads to a tantrum about George W. Bush and which leaders have historically been kinder to Israel. While the family members seem to care a lot about this issue, an audience watching a play set in the relatively recent past doesn’t experience their agony as intensely, or, in some cases, at all. This isn’t ideal when said play has a run time of nearly three hours.
Debra Booth’s two-story set, with Michael’s bedroom above the living room and dining room, provides some visual interest but falters when activated. For most of the play, the action occurs in one room or the other, so the stage shrinks. When one character does remain in the bedroom while the others interact around the table, it becomes an unnecessary distraction.
Levenson’s script is also packed with needless distractions. Whole characters and plot lines could (and, frankly, should) be excised to put the focus on Michael, Holly, and Sharon and their discussions of obligation, compassion, and what’s right and wrong. Right now, the play bobs and weaves while touching on the perils of the early internet, mental illness, and the wide-eyed wonder of youth. Keeping up with the subject changes and trying to care about much-discussed but never-seen characters is exhausting.
Director Matt Torney attempts to lighten up the action at times, and uses Rome and Abramson particularly well, but there’s only so much that can be done when the central character defines toxic masculinity. Michael’s rage consumes everything and everyone around it.
The best advice, in this case, could come from another frustrated sibling currently airing her grievances on Broadway: Let it go.
To Oct. 14 at Studio Theatre. 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$90. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.