Monday, June 17, 2019

Sensory Overload: Too Many Threads Impair Memorability of Well-Crafted 'If I Forget' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

If I Forget
a recent play by Steven Levenson
directed by Devon de Mayo
Victory Gardens Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 7

If I Forget playwright Stephen Levinson--who just turned 35 last month--has had a rather memorable past few years.

He wrote the book (i.e. script) for the 2017 Tony Award-winning musical, Dear Evan Hansen, earning his own Tony for doing so.

He became the showrunner for the FX TV series, Fosse/Verdon, which I've enjoyed.

And he's writing screenplays for a movie version of Dear Evan Hansen as well as a biopic of Rent creator Jonathan Larson.

So I was quite intrigued to see Victory Gardens' Chicago premiere of If I Forget, which ran Off-Broadway in 2017.

I found it to be nothing less than a professional piece of theater, abetted by a fine cast under the direction of Devon de Mayo, with a rather impressive set designed by Andrew Boyce.

But over its full 2-1/2 hours, the play seemed to pursue a few too many narrative threads and ultimately felt as though a quite talented writer was trying to explore a bit too much.

With Act I set in July 2000 and the second in February 2001--internationally prior to 9/11 for reasons not readily apparent to me--the entire play takes place within the well-appointed Washington, DC home of the Fischer family patriarch, Lou (the always great David Darlow).

We soon learn that Lou's longtime wife has passed fairly recently, and his own health is on the decline.

So visiting from New York are his son, Michael (Daniel Cantor), a Jewish studies professor, and Mike's "shiksa" wife, Ellen (Heather Townsend).

Mike's sister Holly (Gail Shapiro)—a wannabe interior decorator—and her successful lawyer husband, Howard (Keith Kupferer), seemingly also live in DC and are at Lou’s home, as is a another sibling Sharon (Elizabeth Ledo), who is apparently living there.

Holly and Howard’s son—actually his step-son—Joey (Alec Boyd), is also present although their daughter is not.

Mike and Ellen also have an unseen daughter, Abby, who suffers from anorexia & anxiety and is presently in Israel on a birthright trip amid rather tumultuous times.

So even without my wanting to spell out every narrative strain, If I Forget concerns itself with Lou’s health, squabbling siblings angling for their inheritance, various complications in their lives (including money issues), the departed mother and rather acute parental matters.

Given all the familial bickering that ensues, the play reminds of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, certainly a worthy bar for Levenson to bound toward.

But most notably--and I would say compellingly--is the strain about Michael, his views about modern Israel & contemporary American Jews (keeping in mind its turn of the century setting) and the rather provocative book he is about to publish, even at risk to his tenure track.

Seemingly akin to how Levenson has drawn most of the Fischers, I am proudly Jewish but not particularly religious nor a lockstep defender of Israel's government.

As did Lou--a World War II vet--and other kin of Mike's, I disliked his proposed book title (which I won't reveal here) but I also found merit in some of his arguments, including the notion of being shocking to stimulate book sales.

Unfortunately, as this angle of If I Forget is just getting riveting, it largely gets left behind.

There's nothing wrong with a family drama, especially with good dialogue and fine actors.

Like Darlow, Kupferer is constantly stellar, one can truly feel Cantor bristle and Shapiro & Ledo are excellent at making Mike's older & younger sisters quite exasperating at times. (Or perhaps that's just how I saw it, being a middle brother myself.)

But though I thought the points Levenson--via Michael--was making about Jewish identity to be rather illuminating, I ultimately struggled to identify what the play was truly about, as it ventured in so many directions.

Even as such, If I Forget provides plenty to think about, and in liking it more than not, I considerably valued Victory Gardens' post-show discussion.

The abundant merits of play make it wrong to be wantonly dismissive, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from coming to their own conclusions.

But I'm just thinking it could've hit harder for me--in the immediate and future contemplation--if some of the interwoven strands had simply been forgotten.

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