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A Play That Illumines a Generation

Spring Forward, Fall Back Asks: Will Our Grandchildren Be Jewish?

By Lisa Traiger

Reprinted from Washington Jewish Week with permission of the author.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"Spring Forward, Fall Back" is a 21st-century ghost story, its characters haunted by regret, disappointment and dreams shattered. It features men who lost their mothers too soon, boys who never quite grew up and an elderly gentleman who becomes more childlike, his mind innocently and innocuously turning to mush.

Both a sonata and a dirge for a family and a people balancing uneasily on the cusp of the 21st century, Robert Brustein's world premiere, on Theater J's stage through Nov. 26 is very likely the most important Jewish play of this generation.

We've had significant Jewish playwrights speak for earlier and current generations, many from Theater J's stage. S. Ansky, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Wendy Wasserstein and Richard Greenberg have offered their clarion voices to our community and our country through Theater J world premieres, building a provocative canon of contemporary Jewish voices that acknowledges the vitality and intensity of being Jewish in America in the 20th and now 21st centuries.

In the capable hands of Ari Roth, playwright, artistic director and, most important, Jewish soul of this abundantly talented company, Theater J continues to seek out new works that matter, and, perhaps, ultimately make a difference.

His latest testament to the Jewish dramatic canon comes from none other than playwright Robert Brustein. Our dean of American theater directors, founder of both American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theater, as well as a formidable critic and essayist, Brustein in "Spring Forward, Fall Back" has heard the cri de coeur of the Jewish people.

It's a sob and a poignant gasp, for he envisions in his tightly drawn story of one family across four generations the fading of a long and illustrious millennium of Jewish identity. Brustein, himself a cultural Jew of the first order, in his twilight years has come to face a painful reality: A Judaism built solely on deli from Zabars, season tickets to a great American symphony, an addiction to the Sunday New York Times , a collection of Yiddish and New Yorkish colloquialisms, and a vague knowledge of the seasons for Passover and Yom Kippur is not a Judaism ripe for successive generations to carry forth.

Director Wesley Savick maneuvers his six cast members through 90 intermission-less minutes at a moderate pace, one that lags only momentarily in the play's midsection. Brustein's four labeled movements, spanning 60 years and, non-coincidentally, four Jewish holidays, serve as the scaffolding on which Richard's family stands.

When we first meet Richard, the fulcrum of this play, as the lights brighten on white-shrouded furniture in Lewis Folden's workable set, he regally wields a conductor's baton, a would-be or has-been Leonard Bernstein. In a play in which three generations of a Jewish family are double cast, snowy-haired Bill Hamlin as aging Richard allows a painful vulnerability and mental fog to hover over his performance, playing delicately to the right, but mournful, tone.

Standing amid Folden's translucent walls, he inhabits a world where past and present commingle like sundry tracks on an iPod playlist. Old Richard observes himself in his youth, a brash, know-it-all teenager up against his immigrant Polish businessman father, Abe (Mitchell Greenberg).

As a young Richard, red-headed Sean Dugan is a dead ringer for a Richie Happy Days Cunningham; his performance though, even as the grandson David, a wild Deadhead, is slightly wan.

It's no surprise that both generations of father and son spar, over music, chores and shiksa girlfriends. It's an age-old argument that Brustein revisits in subsequent generations, reinforcing his idea of Jewish continuity versus assimilation in America's 20th century.

By the time Richard becomes a grandfather, he's a retired orchestra conductor whose career began in a swing band; his grandson is unrecognizable, red hair twisted into cornrows, his baggy jeans, black hoody and inner-city accent reeking of a wannabe hip-hopper.

In between, Hamlin plays Richard as spent; he's sparred and lost too many battles with his own son, David, initially that pot-smoking Deadhead, set on roaming the highways in tie-dyed T-shirts to follow the countercultural Grateful Dead.

This scene features Greenberg as middle-aged, ineffectual Richard, knocking heads with his son, now played by Dugan, while his dead wife, Naomi, hovers, making her own opinions heard. Stoic Susan Rome, initially as Minnie, Richard's flanken-cooking mother, later becomes Naomi, the steely and coldly distant wife of Richard and mother of David, before her own early death.

At times she's a harmonizing chord, particularly when young Richard consistently obeys her every request, and later a harsh counterpoint, her ghostly presence palpable and tense as she contradicts Richard's easygoing manner with his son.

Finally, David's ex-wife, the non-Jewish Christine (Anne Petersen), turns up with sour notes, reinforcing that the choices fathers and sons make, like intermarriage, return to affect grandsons.

Brustein's play is surprisingly old-fashioned at its core, nearly a kitchen-table family drama with a small, close-knit cast, made contemporary as much for its ghostly hauntings of dead characters as for the raft of compelling issues it brings to the foreground.

Aside from assimilation and Jewish continuity, Brustein doesn't ignore other topics equally au courant, from the lingering memory of 9/11 and the ever-present threat of terrorism on our shores, to the growing rift between pop culture and high culture, to racism and anti-Semitism, to the disintegrating nuclear and extended family.

Unabashedly and most essentially, Brustein forces the Theater J audience to ponder the ultimate Jewish existential question: Will my grandchildren be Jewish? For we see the outcome in old Richard's eyes: Bill Hamlin's palpable disappointment and loss. A legacy he once rejected now rejected again, in variations, by his son and grandson.

That Theater J deals forthrightly with an issue that stretches across generations and households of Jews, touching every Jewish family, is commendable. Brustein's sentiments in the end are surprisingly clear: The Jewish people are as lost without their culture, their love of high arts and popular arts, as equally as they are lost without the tenets of religion, in whatever form its followers choose.

The nagging existential question of the Jewish 20th century resounds: Who are you and what will your grandchildren become in 21st-century America, where every Jew is a Jew by choice? Brustein demands from us, in the words of Arthur Miller, an immortal 20th-century master playwright, nothing more than "attention must be paid."

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino.

Lisa Traiger is arts correspondent for Washington Jewish Week.

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