- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2006

In the autumn of one’s life, time becomes comfortingly, sometimes maddeningly, fluid. You may not remember what you had for breakfast, but childhood memories burn warm and sharp: One minute it’s World War II and the next, the acrid aftermath of September 11.

You find yourself at home with the ghosts from your life as past and present mingle with an easy, sprawling familiarity. As for the future, it seems finite — sickness, loss of faculties, death.

Time weighs heavily on the mind of esteemed critic Robert Brustein, whose world premiere “Spring Forward, Fall Back” is a sentimental and ultimately forgiving memory play directed by Wesley Savick that speaks to the issues of cultural assimilation as much as it does to the age-old conflicts between fathers and sons.

Mr. Brustein embarks on a nostalgic, frequently unsparing, journey into his childhood and fatherhood as he experienced it — raising a boy on his own — as well as his own son’s early foray into child rearing. A sense of deep loss runs through the play — not only an ebbing away of life, but the loss also of Jewish culture, of a strong sense of family as well as a dwindling appreciation for the classical arts.

Mr. Brustein packs a lot of regret into 90 minutes, and at times “Spring Forward” suffers from a surfeit of dramatic threads. He employs a clever framing device to try to pull it all together — the inevitable intergenerational arguments about music that probably have been going on since Cro-Magnon dads implored their offspring, “Enough already with the beating of bones. In my day, we didn’t have rhythm. We grunted, and it was good enough for us.”

The play begins with debate about the relative merits of Artie Shaw vs. Guy Lombardo and then segues into Grateful Dead worshippers and the general disdain for classical music in the ‘80s before ending with the ascendancy of rap and hip-hop culture in the new millennium.

The play is structured like a classical work, with three movements and a coda centered on the ruminations of aging orchestral conductor and clarinetist Richard (Bill Hamlin), who stands in a bathrobe and pajamas in his shuttered New York apartment conducting Rachmaninoff to an invisible orchestra.

Suddenly, the dust covers are whisked off the furniture, and it’s 1945, and Young Richard (Sean Dugan) moodily listens to Artie Shaw while his father, Abe (Mitchell Greenberg), lectures him on the value of money, playing golf and reading the newspaper instead of burying his nose in a book. His mother, Minnie (Susan Rome), busily prepares for Passover, although she is so bent on assimilation that she provides Easter eggs and Christmas trees for her sons.

The cultural and musical schisms deepen in 1983, when Richard’s son David (Mr. Dugan again) opts for a Dead concert in the District over observing Yom Kippur. Richard by now is a famous symphony conductor who doesn’t know Jerry Garcia from the Frito Bandito.

He’s also a widower so keen on not repeating his father’s grouchy dominance that he has no rules or boundaries. The result? His 20-year-old son is a whiny jerk — until news of his Deadhead girlfriend Christine’s (Anne Petersen) pregnancy hurls him into adulthood.

The third movement takes place during Hanukkah in 2001. David is pushing 40, and his college-age son Sean (Joe Baker) is a hip-hop manque who has joined a Harlem church to please his black girlfriend.

“Spring Forward” is prone to shambling exposition and long-winded explanations that sound more as if they played out in the author’s head than like full-bodied discussions taking place between living, breathing people. The actors seem bogged down by the volume of verbiage and the weight of memory.

Mr. Dugan is the most relaxed and natural with the often stiff dialogue, finding immediacy and wounded poignancy in his characters. Mr. Hamlin also strikes some grace notes as Old Richard, especially when recounting the tragedies in his life with affecting matter-of-factness. The women in the play are mainly shrews and harridans and usually die young so they can carp at Richard from the afterlife.

“Spring Forward” is a noble and honest effort at making sense of one man’s life as he questions his upbringing and the way he raised his child. Was I a good son? A good father? A good Jew? Robert asks himself as the past flares brightly before him and death is close enough for him to reach out and touch.

**1/2

WHAT: “Spring Forward, Fall Back,” by Robert Brustein

WHERE: Theater J, Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 26.

TICKETS: $15 to $45

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

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