Steven Levenson’s play “If I Forget,” now playing at the Roundabout, not only raises piercing questions about major Jewish issues of the day, but audience members will feel at home with this Jewish family and the style in which they relate to each other. Three Fischer siblings gather at their family’s home in Washington, D.C., to celebrate their father’s birthday, just as Michael Fischer, a liberal Jewish studies professor, is about to publish a controversial book. Each has a stake in their own version of their family history. Levenson, 32, an award-winning playwright, wrote the book for the hit musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” now playing on Broadway. The play opens in 2000 with the Fischer patriarch watching television news accounts of the Camp David meetings.
Q: The play is set in 2000-2001. And yet, with references to a recent contested election, a stalled peace process, anti-Semitism, it all seems so timely.
A: When I started writing five years ago it didn’t feel quite as timely — it didn’t feel quite as timely even a few months ago. It has taken on more resonance and relevance in the months since the election. … I chose the year 2000 to set the play — I turned 16 that year and it was probably the first time in my life that I became aware of the world in a political sense as an adult, or almost an adult. So it felt like a real turning point for me personally.
I was also looking back at how the idealism I grew up with as a Reform Jew was giving way to something else, through the election of George Bush, the collapse of the Camp David talks, the feeling that the hopeful optimism of the ’90s was dwindling, both in the U.S. and how it related to Israel and the peace process. The sense that things were on the right track seemed to disappear. I think we’re at another turning point right now. After eight years of being on one trajectory and moving in one direction, it feels like things have swerved in another direction.
What sorts of changes in the script did you find you had to make since the election?
There’s a point where Michael [the son, who’s a scholar] talks about what he sees as paranoia about the Holocaust and the possibility of it happening again. He dismisses that in a way that I found after the election to be too blithe. Some of his dismissal of the fears of anti-Semitism took on a different resonance. Frankly, I didn’t feel like anti-Semitism was an issue in the United States until a few months ago. I didn’t expect to see vandalism in New York City, swastikas on the subway. It feels very alarming and the play can’t be blithe about that. The changes were topical, about making sure not to be dismissive of those concerns, while at the same remaining true to these characters and their voices and the moment.
Is there a character who speaks for you?
No. An important thing for me is that all the characters voice things that at times I agree with, and at other times I don’t. It was important for me to make sure that there was never an authorial voice in the play or an audience stand-in. You never feel on solid ground.
The mother, who passed away, is quoted as saying, “I forgive, but I never forget.” What role does memory play here?
I am always interested in how unstable memory is, how it’s constantly shifting. Here, the characters constantly say, “That’s not how I remember it.” That has been my experience – we can’t always agree with the way things happened, there’s no objective account of the past. It’s challenging to set things in the past and look at moments with a fresh perspective – shake up the way we remember things.
Faith comes up a lot, whether it’s about atheism, regaining faith; for the young woman with Jerusalem Syndrome perhaps it’s an overdose of faith. And Michael, who is surprised to have a university colleague who is observant says that we “spent a century getting away from that.” How does the question of faith advance the plot?
It’s very contested in the play. What it means to be Jewish is a constant struggle between these characters. It’s not just intellectual or spiritual, but it’s a real personal element in the struggle between siblings as to who is the most authentic member of the family. So much of the play is about asking, What does it mean to be Jewish today? It’s such a thorny question in that many of us are not traditionally observant. Even people I know who are observant don’t necessarily have a solid spiritual component to their practice — they’re not necessarily believers.
I have a toddler and I’m constantly thinking about what I’m going to tell her when she’s old enough to ask questions. One of my initial impulses in writing the play was realizing that my grandparents and great-grandparents, who were German Jews, were much less attuned to religious questions than I am. Tradition doesn’t necessarily get weaker as time goes on. Sometimes it can work in the opposite direction.
Did working on this influence how you view these issues?
What has been really interesting is working with the actors and hearing their perspective. Not that it’s actually changed my opinions, but it’s forced me to ask more questions.
The grandson Joey asks at the end, “What’s my inheritance?” How do you answer that?
It’s a huge question. When so many describe themselves as culturally Jewish, what does that mean, in a country where so much of our culture is already Jewish?
Abby’s experience with the Jerusalem Syndrome experience speaks to this question, too. It’s about inheriting something unconscious, something about the land itself that’s ineffable. It seems to suggest that we inherit memories. How much of the trauma of the people who have come before do we inherit?
Do you still feel any of the optimism you felt back then?
I wish I could say that I did. I feel optimism in that a younger generation of Jews has maybe more of an open mind than the older generation.
I was very nervous in writing this play, in bringing up these issues. I didn’t know what the appetite would be. It’s been very interesting, maybe because of the elections, but the audience is very willing, even eager, to engage in these conversations, to hear someone like Michael who voices opinions far outside of the mainstream and not have a knee-jerk response simply to dismiss what he says. People are eager to consider things anew.
What is the conversation like among your generation of young Jews?
It mirrors the conversation of older people. Just as polarized and heated. There’s not always a lot of room for calm, thoughtful airing of views.
If I Forget Runs through April 30. Tickets can be bought at Roundabouttheatre.org