Spring Forward, Fall Back
Theatre J, Washington D.C.
Photo by Stan Barouh.
From the pen of Robert Brustein, a standards-setting educator, critic and playwright, comes Spring Forward, Fall Back, a tightly knit play about generations of fathers and sons and their problematic relationships. The play received its world premiere October 25, 2005, at Washington, DC’s Theater J under the direction of Wesley Savick, an early graduate of the American Repertory Theatre, a program Brustein established at Harvard University in 1979.
Tampering with time as the title Spring Forward, Fall Back suggests, Brustein allows his protagonist Richard Resnick (played poignantly by Bill Hamlin), an ageing classical music conductor, to not only tell his story from boyhood to the present day, but also to walk into the scenes of memory as an unseen character. Music and religion fuel the fires of contention between the generations. In the first section of the play which Brustein labels the “First Movement” (movement, a musical term, substitutes for act), Richard’s grandparents refuse to come to their son’s Passover dinner because Richard’s mother (played by Susan Rome) does not keep a Kosher kitchen. In the First Movement, Richard is a 1945 teenager who fights with his father (played by Mitchell Greenberg) about swing music. The father who has no ear for music proclaims that music is either dinner music or funeral music. Otherwise everything else including swing is noise. The latter type of music foreshadows the deaths of Richard’s brother in Okinawa (a letter arrives before they sit down to dinner); some months later, the mother from ovarian cancer; and finally Richard’s father, presumably from a broken heart. As an old man, Richard regrets how unkind and rude he had been to his father and tries unsuccessfully to verbally influence the young Richard (played by Sean Dugan).
The Second Movement finds Richard (played at this age by Mitchell Greenberg in his second character role) single-handedly raising his teenage son David (played by Sean Dugan in his second character role). Richard’s wife Naomi (played by Susan Rome in her second character role) who haunts the scene as a ghost is dead from a massive coronary possibly brought on from a combination of drinking and prescription drugs. David’s rock ‘n roll irritates Richard, but worse, during the holiday of Yom Kippur where Jews must admit their sins and forgive all who have sinned against them, David tells his father that he has gotten his girlfriend pregnant. An indulgent father, Richard tries to help by offering money for an abortion. He tells David he is too young to be a father, but there is also the issue that the girlfriend Christine is not Jewish. Christine (played by Anne Petersen), having had abortions before, decides this is her last chance to have a baby. What’s particularly interesting about Christine is that she senses and then sees David’s mother and grandfather.
The Third Movement moves the action closer to the present. David has divorced Christine, who lost custody of their son Sean (played by Joe Baker) for getting caught with drugs. David and Sean have been living with Richard, but now David has a girlfriend (also not Jewish) and is moving to her place. David had to grow up quickly and he has the same complaints that his father and grandfather had about their sons’ music. Sean is a rapper and David cannot understand why Sean likes this music. The 2001 timeframe is Chanukah and also Christmas. It’s the year of terrorists, but in this play, the terrorists are the wives. Christine comes to pickup Sean and to give David and Richard an earful of complaints. It seems Christine and Naomi had a lot in common. They both disapproved of the lax discipline that Richard and Sean exercised with their sons.
Of the three segments, the most poignant is the third. The family and their religion have disintegrated. Brustein, however, adds a coda to bring the old Richard telling the story of his life full circle in a Man of La Mancha, metaphoric face-in-the-mirror dose of reality. Richard is an old man fearing death and death has a surprisingly familiar face.
The play begs for heavy hitting actors and a blackbox theater that is so small everyone can feel the spit when the characters fight. Brustein is not exploring new ground in theater, but working with all the familiar elements of a successful drama. Perhaps director Wesley Savick needed more distance from his teacher to make this production stronger. There was nothing inherently wrong with the acting, just not enough passion. Perhaps playing two roles, as Mitchell Greenberg, Sean Dugan, and Susan Rome all do, diminishes what these actors are capable of.
October 25, 2006
Karren L. Alenier