Don’t talk about religion or politics, goes an unspoken rule of many a family gathering. The Fischers, the Jewish American clan at the center of Steven Levenson’s searing drama If I Forget, don’t just fail to observe that red line—they step way over it, taking an already volatile mix of arguments about Jewish identity and the state of Israel and stirring toxic internecine squabbles over real estate, inheritance, and fraud.
The play, which had its premiere at New York’s Roundabout Theatre in 2017, is now in its Los Angeles premiere at the Fountain Theatre, directed by Jason Alexander. Alexander, best known for his role on Seinfeld, got his start in theatre, including in such shows as Broadway Bound and Jerome Robbins Broadway (for which he won a Tony), and has returned to the boards sporadically over the years (The Producers in L.A., Fish in the Dark on Broadway, They’re Playing Our Song with L.A.’s Reprise Theatre Company, where he served briefly as artistic director). I spoke to him a few weeks ago as If I Forget was heading into previews.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Did you see the original production at the Roundabout?
JASON ALEXANDER: I did not. As far as I understand it’s on Broadway HD, and I keep meaning to check it out—and then I get torn about it: Should I, shouldn’t I? I will eventually see it.
I think the play is licensed but I haven’t seen it pop up at a lot of theatres, and I wonder if it’s because it’s a pretty tough play. Wouldn’t you say?
Is it? It is no tougher than any other family drama, other than the fact that the central issue that starts to wreak havoc on this family is clearly a controversial political issue. In that sense, I guess within certain communities, you could be hard pressed to find an audience that would be willing to hear what is espoused in the play, even though what is espoused in the play is not definitively proven to be true or not true.
Well, it stages an uncomfortable debate about Israel that I know rages on, but that a lot of folks would rather do anything but engage in.
What’s interesting about how this particular production came to be is that there is a rabbi out here, Daniel Bouskila, who saw the show at the Roundabout and fell in love with it. He’s the one that has championed its production out here, and in fact brought it to the Fountain and made them aware of it. So it’s not anathema to the Jewish population at large. It just depends on your point of view.
What is your own relationship to this material?
What the Michael character espouses, just so we’re clear, is that he makes a compelling argument for why Israel, American Jewry, and Jews in general should see the benefit of trying to put some distance between themselves and the way the Holocaust is referred to—in his opinion, the way the Holocaust is used as a sort of rallying cry for a lot of Jewish and American Jewish and Israeli causes. And he ill-advisedly writes a book with the title Forget the Holocaust. In the play, when he goes into these monologues in which he’s trying to explain what he was talking about, there’s a lot that’s laudable—there’s lots that I think any Jewish person would identify with and be willing to consider.
But I look at the play as a personal tragedy for that character. Because what I think he espouses in saying we should forget the Holocaust is that we should we should decouple our belief systems and our motivations and our actions and our sense of self and our sense of tribe from our shared history. At this moment, I don’t believe that a dismissal of personal history, no matter how hard it may be, is a pathway toward a promising future. I personally believe we have to understand, embrace, and move on from our history, but that the espousing of “we should forget it”—that’s a lot of what’s happening in the American population right now. We have groups saying we should reassess how we talk about American history and slavery, and the idea that we shouldn’t be teaching that because it will make people feel bad—I don’t think that is a worthy part of educating a population.
For me personally, my attraction to the play, whether I was directing it or in it or watching it, what compels me about the play—Michael’s attitude about the Holocaust is the MacGuffin. What the play is really about is how this family seemingly disintegrates, or you may look at it and say, no, at the end of the day, they actually rally. But the very torturous courses that their lives take, and how they handle that, is what the play is about to me. That’s why any secular or non-Jewish person could walk through the door and get this play. You do not have to have a sense of Judaica or a position on this debate to get what the play is truly about. I was drawn to it primarily because of its human examination of the family, and then it just happened to be espousing stuff that I am familiar with, and so it made me capable of directing.
I also wonder about how this play hits in a time of rising antisemitism, and amid a more general anxiety about identity politics and what that might mean for Jews in America.
There’s a huge question right now about how people self-identify, in terms of their race, their ethnicity, their religion, their gender, and how, for lack of a better word, tribes or communities identify and where we sit with them. It is a very trying time; I don’t know if it’s any different from our history, but it seems like absolutism is on the rise everywhere—the idea that my position is the position, and my identity is the identity, and everyone else must conform to how I need to be seen and how I need to be heard. I personally am very respectful of how people wish to be seen and how they wish to identify; generally I find no problem in honoring those wishes. But there is also a sense of, those who do have trouble with that are not merely my unfortunate neighbors, or my brethren I don’t see eye to eye with, but they are my enemy. It’s the demonization of anyone who doesn’t conform to how I see the world, and that to me is so tragic. I think we’re far from seeing the end of that exploration; I think we are in the midst of it.
I do think this play does a pretty nice job of saying that is the road to ruin. I was saying to the cast the other day, what this show ultimately is about is ego. Everybody wants what they want, right? And they all have very good reasons, intellectual and emotional, for why everyone else should conform to what they want. But if everyone holds that as the goal, no one gets what they want. You know, to quote my former character George Costanza: We’re living in a society.
He was a wise man. Speaking of Seinfeld, I know you got that gig while you were still starring in Jerome Robbins Broadway. And you’ve made a few stage appearances since, but not a lot. Apart from directing theatre, are you interested in acting onstage again?
It is my favorite kind of acting. It’s not that I don’t love the stuff in front of the cameras, but I love the process of discovery that comes with rehearsing something for many weeks, and then putting it up over and over and over and going, “Oh, God, if I had known on Monday what I know on Saturday, that would have been so much better.” That only happens in the theatre. I came into my life as a performer through magic; I really wanted to be a magician. I realized I was never going to be good enough to realize that. Then I understood that the theatre is a gigantic and effective illusion; an audience walks into a theatre, and nothing is what it says it is. They know they’re staring into a box. They know they’re looking at Jason Alexander and some other name from the marquee, and we start calling ourselves John and Steve, and we’re in a New York apartment, and now we’re gonna sing a song, okay? And they go with that illusion, and they get emotionally involved with that illusion in a powerful way. That doesn’t happen in other kinds of performing. So I do love it.
The question for me with theatre constantly is, is the thing you’re asking me to do something that I don’t know how to do when I start? That interests me more. A lot of things that get offered are things I could have done last night, and I don’t love just doing the easy thing over and over and over. I would much rather be compelled by something—it doesn’t mean it can’t be comedic, doesn’t mean it can’t be silly, but is it challenging to me? And No. 2, and this is a big thing now that I’m about to become a grandfather, is how long is it going to take me out of being in the life of my family and my friends? Because I have never been able to do theatre without living a monastic life. I can’t go out with friends, and I can’t do a hell of a lot during the day; I’ve got to have that energy for doing that thing at night, I’ve got to protect the voice, and you get one day off a week. Everyone else comes home at night, everyone else is home on the weekend, on holidays. We’re always going out the door. So for a project to be worth that to me for a period of time as an actor, it has to be a very special project.
I know you did a little bit of Tevye and a little bit of Pseudolus when you were in Jerome Robbins Broadway. Do those roles not call out to you?
I think there’s a good Tevye in me, if a guy in his 60s is allowed to play that part. You know, why couldn’t I have 10-year-old daughters? Pseudolus would have called to me when I was younger, but my problem with that role is that I’ve seen too many great ones, and I don’t know what I could bring. There are things in Tevye that I feel would be unique to me—some colors and some ideas that I’m not sure other Tevyes have brought. But Pseudolus? There are better comedians than me. That is a great bag-of-tricks kind of role, and I got a bag of tricks, but it’s not bigger than some of my colleagues who’ve done an extraordinary job with that role. I don’t know that I could do anything with it that would put me in the top five.
I had heard years ago that the role you really wanted a crack at was Sweeney Todd.
Yeah, Sweeney. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve aged into Judge Turpin at this point. But Sweeney is one of those roles where— yes, I’ve seen some great Sweeneys, but there were a couple of considerations about it, like, if you were really going to treat Sweeney as Hamlet, and think about what his journey was that has brought him to the moment that we see in the show. There were questions that I never saw any other actors confront and incorporate that I thought could be really compelling additions to the Sweeney oeuvre. I’m sorry I didn’t get to try and pull it off.
Can you tell me about how you approach directing, and where you learned to do it? I imagine, as many actors do, you learned from the folks who directed you.
Yeah, I learned a lot from Gene Saks, a lot from Joe Mantello, from Susan Stroman, Anna Shapiro. My take is that there are three things a director needs. First, you need to make a choice about what the damn thing is about. And it’s not always what happens, but what it’s about. Then you need to be able to articulate that to everybody that’s going to engage in creating that event. And then—you know, a lot of people think of directing as being an auteur, or being the general. It’s not about that. To me, it’s about being the conductor of a symphony. What I mean by that is, the conductor probably can’t play the violin as well as the guy or the woman in the first violin chair. Same thing for the first trumpet chair, same thing for the pianist. And none of those three instruments need the guy with the stick to play. But for the collaborative piece that they are a part of to be great, they all need the conductor, because of the conductor’s understanding of how this is going to feel, how it’s going to move, and how I’m going to move all those pieces together. That’s what the person holding the stick is responsible for. It’s not about making everybody do what I want them to do. It’s about perhaps making them see what I see, and helping me build that vision through their individual participation in a way that will make all the pieces fit. So being in the position after all these years as an actor where I could only have a certain small vantage point, to finally be able to step back and play with everybody—that’s the joy of directing. Hopefully that’s what I’ve done. I have actors that will tell you I make them crazy, and there are actors that will tell you they have learned a ton from having me put them through their paces. I would hope that even the ones that I make crazy feel that it was worth it in the end.
Speaking of crazy-making directors, I noticed the one name you didn’t list among your mentors: Jerome Robbins.
Oh, I learned a ton from Jerry, the good and the bad. The good was extraordinary, and they were things that you wouldn’t necessarily see. Like, nobody ever rehearsed at less than 100 percent for Jerry Robins, because he’d kill you. And when something wasn’t quite working, over and over and over, my inclination would be to say to him, “Jerry, it doesn’t work, let it go.” And his was, “I have to see it in front of an audience.” He knew an audience would change it. He was right often. He knew where an audience’s eye would go; he knew how small gestures could convey big things. He understood things about the human condition that he couldn’t always articulate but he could sure as hell stage them.
Stephen Sondheim actually explained this to me. He said, “You know, if you notice, Robbins was always collaborating with incredibly articulate people who are kind of brilliant at what they do.” I mean, Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents—these are smart people, and they talk big, and they talk fast and they think fast. Robbins was not articulate. So the only way he could keep an idea from going out of control when those guys started talking was to go, “No!” and shut it down. His no was very often correct. But instead of saying, “Hey, you know what, guys, here’s the problem, if we do that, A, B, and C will happen”—he couldn’t do that. So his emotions would get the best of him, and he would react emotionally, in a job where too many people’s hearts are on the line, and their artistry is on the line. That kind of brutality—that was the negative lesson.
To return to If I Forget, I don’t know all the folks in your cast, but I do know a number of them from my days going to L.A. theatre, especially your lead, Leo Marks. I can just see him—and hear him—in that lead role.
He is really, really impressive. It’s a very hard role. And I have to say, with all deference to everybody who came through the door, that until Leo came through the door, I wasn’t sure we were gonna get it. I thought we were gonna have to kind of compromise and then see if I could direct someone to glory. But then Leo came through the door and opened his mouth and I went, Thank you, God.
One thing that some noticed about the New York cast and creative team: It starred some great non-Jewish actors, Larry Bryggman and Maria Dizzia, and was directed by Daniel Sullivan. There were some folks with Jewish heritage involved, including Jeremy Shamos, who played Michael, but as you know, there has lately been some controversy about non-Jews playing Jews, especially in a play where that identity is being contested.
For the most part, we’ve skirted that. I would not have personally have held that as a bar, but I think for the most part, we have not only managed to cast Jews as Jews, I think we’ve managed to cast the one shiksa with a shiksa. So mission accomplished. But the one thing I will say is: I certainly understand how having an authentic, almost organic understanding of an ethnicity or a disability or whatever can certainly add a dimension to your ability to portray a part. But I do not subscribe to this whole idea that only the person who is it can play it. I’m not a fan. I’ve just seen too many great actors do extraordinary things and pay great tribute to identities that are not their own. So it would not have been a concern for me, but I understand the argument for people for whom it is a concern.
Well, as has been pointed out, the Costanzas weren’t played by Italians.
Right, none of us could have done any of those characters if you’re gonna play by those rules.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!