These kids today, I tell ya. No respect for elders, no regard for their Jewish heritage. And their taste in music? Oy! Such is the steady refrain in “Spring Forward, Fall Back,” Robert Brustein’s tender-hearted but critical examination of cultural conflicts within three generations of a single family that’s making its debut at D.C.’s Theater J.
An esteemed theater scholar and critic, Brustein has in recent years turned to playwrighting. “Spring Forward,” his fifth play, is a partly autobiographical piece that tackles the issues of assimilation, morality and communication. Directed by Wesley Savick, it saw two weeks of development last July at the (Martha’s) Vineyard Playhouse before launching Theater J’s premiere-filled season.
The 90-minute play follows an elderly man on a deeply personal journey dominated by regret and frustration through 60 years of his family’s history. Working with a six-member cast, three of them playing double roles, Brustein offers three distinct vignettes that reveal pains within each generation. The landscape and personalities change, but certain threads remain, especially the battle between father and son over the evolving tastes of American music.
As a twist, Brustein toys with several characters by occasionally inserting them into scenes like eavesdropping interlopers, either as silent, ghostly observers or sporadic participants who selectively converse with one character while unseen by others.
The play opens in the present as an elderly and frail Richard Resnick (Bill Hamlin) shuffles around his simple apartment seeing visions and reflecting on the past. He invites one apparition to visit his childhood, on Passover 1945, where a young Richard is swaying to Artie Shaw on the Victrola to the growing irritation of his classical music-loving father. The boy’s Russian immigrant grandparents won’t be coming to dinner because his folks don’t keep a Kosher kitchen. The assimilation has begun.
Thirty-eight years later, a similar scene unfolds on Yom Kippur between an older Richard and his “Deadhead” rock music fanatic son. Yet another scene set in 2006 features a self-obsessed grandson entranced with hip-hop. While the musical device links them all together, the steady loss of religious spirit provides the glue.
Indeed, the play gains strength when it focuses on the timeless themes of Jewish heritage and family unity from each generation’s perspective. “Assimilation is like exile,” moans one suffering character who voices the principal theme.
But the play piles on an excess of petulant behavior and quickly tiresome predicaments, such as the inability of one troubled son and girlfriend to practice birth control. Brustein appears to be aiming for a balance between universal themes and personal problems, but the result is less than compelling. In a later scene, two underdeveloped characters register more as one-dimensional irritants than fleshed-out contributors to the saga.
Hamlin anchors the play with a savvy performance that voices many of Brustein’s sobering topics. Mitchell Greenberg captures the impatience of the self-made father, while Susan Rome is convincing in double duty as Richard’s dutiful mother and wife.