The world premiere of Steven Levenson’s If I Forget opened at Roundabout Theatre Company February 22. While set to the backdrop of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, when watched within today’s political climate, the play feels unexpectedly pertinent. 2017, says the playwright, has given his newest work a “scary relevance” that he never intended for it—in more ways than one.
If I Forget follows the lives of the Fischer family in an upper-middle class neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C. At the center of the play is Michael Fischer, a liberal Jewish studies professor whose newest book about the Holocaust is ruffling more than a few feathers—both at home and within the larger Jewish community.
The play examines what it means to be Jewish at the turn of the 20th century, a period of “hope, optimism, and possibility” for American Jews, says Levenson. “It seemed like peace in the Middle East was definitely going to happen within our lifetime, very soon,” explains the playwright—recalling the Oslo Accords and Camp David Summit between Israel and Palestine. “Then Bush was elected and it felt like something had changed historically; like there was a darkness that fell. In a way that does feel eerily similar [to now]… Whatever you feel about Trump, it’s certainly not a sunny vision of America.”
In September 2016, just a few months before the 2016 presidential election came to a head, Levenson was overseeing rewrites for If I Forget, and wondering how his play was going to resonate after Donald Trump’s following had crumpled. “I knew the play had to change based on this insane campaign that was happening,” he says. “My big concern was: ‘How is it going to feel in February when Hilary Clinton is President. We’ll have gone through this terrible campaign, with all of this anti-Semitism—so are people really going to want to revisit this?’”
“Sad to say that’s not the world we’re living in,” says the playwright. “The play itself has taken on some scary relevance that I didn’t mean for it to.”
The characters in If I Forget have not lived through the Holocaust, but it looms over them persistently—something that Levenson himself, now in his 30s, experienced growing up. “It informed so much of my childhood,” he says. “It’s a hard thing to learn…that millions of people like you were killed for being like you. It’s a hard fact to assimilate.” For his generation, he explains, there was a constant anxiety of history repeating itself. “I’ve talked to other Jews my age and there’s this general persistent fear that it could always happen [again],” he says. Hence the well-known cry within the community: Never forget.
The 2016-2017 political climate has exacerbated some of these concerns. “I was feeling for the first time in my life, truly uncomfortable being Jewish in this country,” he says, “which I thought I would never feel. That was such an alien feeling, and still is.”
As the title suggests, If I Forget questions what’s at risk when we try to forget the past. Michael, played by Jeremy Shamos, is determined to move on from the Holocaust and its haunting presence. For Levenson, the notion to “Make America Great Again” directly links to this desire.
“There is a huge temptation [within society] to forget the past, or to erase the past,” says Levenson. “Let’s just forget the bad things that happened here, let’s forget the racism, sexism, and homophobia, and just pretend that we were always perfect. Scarily, that’s a fantasy people have.”
One of the many reasons we can’t let people to forget the Holocaust, says the playwright, is because the memory shines a light on society’s role in allowing such monstrous events to happen.
“It’s easy to say that Hitler was evil...[It] always seemed like [the Holocaust] came out of nowhere in history and had no precedent,” says Levenson. “But there was a process that led to that. Decisions that were made. Those seem like the scary conversations to have.”
“And that’s the conversation that we’re having now,” says Shamos, of the struggle to understand the decisions made and the hateful rhetoric in the wake of the recent election. “Society is trying to figure out: ‘How did this happen?’”
For Shamos, his character’s philosophy isn’t about forgetting the Holocaust, it’s about remembering it in a different way. “[His point] is that the thing we should have learned about the Holocaust is that nationalism is dangerous, not that the world hates Jews. I think that’s really strong.” Consciousness with regard to the threat of nationalism rings with pertinence, regardless of your own faith or familiarity with the history.
“Are we focusing enough on that?,” asks Levenson. “It feels like, ‘Boy, we better focus on that.’”
If I Forget plays at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre Off-Broadway through April 30. Tickets are available by calling (212) 719-1300, online at roundabouttheatre.org, and in person at any Roundabout box office.
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