In Spring Forward, Fall Back, critic-turned-playwright Robert Brustein spins a tale of familial and personal evolution that’s not, he says, his own family’s story—but that’s “maybe 30 percent autobiographical” nonetheless. He’s designed this domestic chronicle to span some six decades, with three actors portraying his protagonist—bandleader Richard Resnick—at various stages of life, while doubling elsewhere as the conductor’s father and his son. At times, that structure literally allows Brustein’s leading man to argue with himself across the decades.
This, let’s note, is something critics can’t help doing as they look back. Revisiting and honing one’s views in public is more or less the job description, and a cultural philosopher as thoughtful and long-lived as Brustein (he’s been writing in the New Republic since 1959) has naturally made an art of it. It’s often said that a critic reveals as much about himself as he does about the works he reviews, so it’s intriguing to discover that this erudite classicist and fervent advocate of the avant-garde also has a sentimental side.
For when Resnick and his relatives discuss issues long central to Brustein’s artistic life—questions of cultural literacy, education, religion, and changing taste—their arguments form a warm, mostly gentle, sometimes humorous portrait of generational evolution and cultural assimilation. Richard’s businessman father grew up in an orthodox Jewish household but is merely observant himself. Living upstairs in the ’40s from Sergei Rachmaninoff (who’s heard pounding away at a piano), this family patriarch prefers the music of Guy Lombardo. Richard, barely out of his teens in this first scene, is less religiously observant than his dad and more attuned to jazz. Following in this pattern in later scenes, Richard’s son will sleep with shiksas and dig the Grateful Dead, while Richard’s grandson will celebrate Christmas to a hip-hop beat. Same language of rebellion, you’ll note, just different phrasing.
Each son laments his old man’s pigheadedness, and each finds his own way of bridging cultural distance, with Richard’s father preaching business as a way up from poverty while Richard proselytizes for jazz, becoming a bandleader. (His son becomes a teacher; there are parallels here with Brustein’s extracritical accomplishments as theater founder, director, actor, and educator.) All the sons have marriages that end in sadness; all are principled, generous, and deeply devoted to family and all dedicate themselves to advancing the arts in ways most Americans do not. I know nothing of Brustein’s personal life, and I don’t mean to suggest that the author is engaging in navel-gazing by proxy. But note that he has written characters who are so similar in their habits of mind, their sensibilities, and their essential values, that the notion of apples not falling far from the tree can’t help occurring early and often.
With the elder Richard (Bill Hamlin) onstage throughout—“I see a lot of ghosts these days,” he says—the New York apartment he’s lived in since childhood fills with the spirits of Passover 1945, soon to be supplanted by the spirits of Yom Kippur 1983 and Hanukkah 2001. Sometimes the elder Richard merely hovers at these gatherings. Other times he can’t resist kibitzing, making himself heard by other characters, to the puzzlement of whichever of his younger selves (played agreeably by Sean Dugan and Mitchell Greenberg) is appropriate to the time period.
Fathers thrust, sons parry, and warmth of feeling prevails as this clan of Russian shtetl émigrés stirs itself into the American melting pot. Theater J’s world premiere manages transitions gracefully but can’t generate much emotional heat. Part of the problem is that Wesley Savick’s staging has to contend with both a surfeit of verbal footnotes (“It was the 15th of May, the festival of San Isidro”) and a few too many ghosts (one of the two wives played by Susan Rome starts walking through walls after a while). Of course, just keeping things clear with so much tricky double-casting is a challenge, which may be why the director makes next to nothing of the play’s conception as a sort of concerto, comprised not of four scenes but of three “movements” and a coda.
The period details seem richest in the first of these movements, while the author’s mastery of pop-lyric nuances (“Feelin’ groovy,” says the Grateful Dead fan to his dad) grows sketchier as the play moves toward the present. Clichés gather, too, uninflected by distinctive patterns of speech (“I can’t remember what I ate last night, but I remember my childhood like it was yesterday”). By evening’s end, the characters are arguing in such essentially similar ways that they give the impression of speaking with one voice.
Still, Brustein, who founded two respected regional theaters and consistently champions adventurous writing, has perhaps earned the right not to push the envelope every time out. While there are minor modernist touches at Theater J, Spring Forward, Fall Back mostly finds its author playing things safe and sturdy, mapping out the progression of the Resnick family with an almost pitiless symmetry. Each generational change is accompanied not just by shifts in musical taste and a diminution of religious observance but also by a distancing of the family’s women: Richard’s devoted, cancer-ridden mom is replaced in the apartment by her son’s withdrawn, suicidal wife, then by their verbally abusive daughter-in-law, who opts out of the family entirely through divorce. Though the action doesn’t proceed much further, it would be of a piece for Richard’s hip-hop-loving grandson (Joe Baker) to end up with a gay Buddhist lover.
Instead—and happily for a play eager to find a measure of grace in cultural transitions—this cornrow-wearing, Baptist-churchgoing Jewish 16-year-old surprises his folks by voicing a budding affection for Bach. There is, at Theater J, a moment of confusion when he says the name—pronouncing it “batch”—and in the quiet before he’s corrected, the author’s forgiving, hope-filled take on family can be read in the puzzled but pleased expressions of the lad’s father and grandfather. Yes, it has taken generations, their smiles say, but here is a musical leap that not only charms them both but would likely delight the great-great-grandfather who had to surrender Old World culture to make his way to the New.