Spring Forward, Fall Back
By Robert Brustein
Theater J of the Washington DCJCC
1529 16th Street, NW
Man’s use of “Time” is an artificial system that has been invented as a template to place over nature for convenience. It is convenient for everything from scheduling meetings to assigning bedtimes to celebrating birthdays. But in 1784, Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay in which he suggested “manipulating time” – the earliest suggestion of daylight savings time, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Franklin’s suggestion, seconded by William Willett 23 years later, to advance time in the spring (so as to extend daylight hours) and to move the clocks back in the autumn proved very appealing to Australia, Great Britain, Germany and the United States during World War I for purposes of conserving fuel. In the United States, clocks stayed advanced an hour during World War II – from February 9, 1942, until September 30, 1945 – so as to decrease the use of artificial light.
But daylight savings time is a chaotic institution. Under normal circumstances, time “marches on”, try as we might to stop it or slow it down. But two days a year, we simply move our clocks ahead or behind an hour. It almost feels like cheating – or magic.
In Robert Brustein’s world premiere of “Spring Forward, Fall Back” at Theater J, time is haunted by ghosts. But before frantically calling Bill Murray and the Ghostbusters, it should be noted that the ghosts are friendly ghosts who “haunt” their children’s lives, desperately trying to atone for their child-rearing sins and to plead with their children not to repeat said sins. The tragedy of it all is that only the characters that want to change can hear the ghosts.
“Spring Forward, Fall Back” is the tale of Richard Resnick (Bill Hamlin), 79, who dies alone in a West End Avenue apartment in New York where he was born. Resnick, a famous conductor, mistakes the angel of death for a thief and a terrorist, insisting that he has already given away everything he owns. But when the intruder steps into the light, he remembers the man from his childhood who walked down the street ringing his bell saying, “I buy old clothes.” Clothing plays a central role in the play, which questions what is truly in the domain of identity and what is a mere accessory – and therefore ultimately dispensable.
Standing in his rumpled pajamas with his clock stopped at 8:44 (think Dickens’ Miss Havisham), Richard perceives a man standing in his room with his face hidden behind a hood, wearing rags (with pots and pans hanging from his ripped coat) and holding a large bag. “I cash clothes. Bring out your rags,” the man says. Surprised that clothes cashers are still in business and that this particular one got up to his floor despite the elevator operators’ strike, Richard tells the man of his son and grandson, and his pneumonia. The man grows increasingly impatient, repeating his pitch for clothes.
Susan Rome (Naomi, Richard‘s wife), Mitchell Greenberg (Richard Resnick in his 40‘s)
and Sean Dugan (David, Richard‘s son) in Robert Brustein‘s
“Spring Forward, Fall Back.“Photo, courtesy of Theater J.
Richard gives him corduroys, but the man asks for more. Richard gives him his shoes – “The heels are rundown anyway” – but the man keeps his hand out gesturing for more. Richard casts first his father’s tallis, tefillin and yarmulka into the man’s bag (“No use for those anymore”) and then the baton he used to conduct his farewell concert. The man then tells Richard, “I cash old souls,” and Richard realizes with a shock that his time has come.
The scene, which vaguely recalls the Monty Python skit with a man pushing a wheelbarrow down the street crying, “Bring out your dead,” is the culmination of a narrative that follows Richard as a child growing up with his parents, Abe and Minnie. Abe comes from an Orthodox family, but he leads a Reform Jewish life with Minnie, all the while lamenting that his parents will not visit for Passover, for fear of the non-kosher dishes. Abe feels a strong connection to his Jewishness, though, which his son Richard does not. Richard’s passion is music (Abe provocatively calls it “noise”) and he cannot understand his father’s nostalgia for the shtetl.
And so it goes, with each subsequent generation becoming further removed from its Jewish identity and more interested in the modern world. Richard and his wife Naomi (Susan Rome), whom the audience only knows as a ghost, try to raise their son David (Sean Dugan) properly. But Naomi dies when David is yet a teenager (suicide is suspected, though her ghost calls it “carelessness”), and David becomes a hippie, interested in drugs, rock ‘n’ roll (mostly the Dead), and a Gentile woman, Christine (Anne Petersen). David’s son, in turn, Sean (Joe Baker), has no sense of his Jewish identity.
“Spring Forward, Fall Back” is a “how-to-guide” for bad parenting, and it is a very vivid exploration of how assimilation unfolds across a family unit. But like Woody Allen’s “Radio Days,” Brustein’s play’s truly innovative move is to map out that assimilation in musical terms. Viewers can track the dilution of Jewish shtetl identity in terms of music, which appeals to the various members of the Resnick family.
Abe enjoys waltzes. (“To Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians you can dance).” Richard insists on playing Artie Shaw and Jazz on his record player, and although his father insists on silencing the pianist in the apartment below, Richard recognizes the man’s talent. The man turns out to be none other than “Serge Rachmaninov.”
When Richard matures as a musician and works as a composer, he is blessed with a son interested in music, although it feels more like a curse, as David favors Rock music. Richard tries in vain to convince his son that Classical music inspired Rock. “There’s a pop tune hidden in the third movement of the Rack Two. Hear it?” he asks. But David doesn’t. “So your music comes out of his music. Tin Pan Alley always stole from classical composers,” Richard concludes. But like clockwork, David later complains about his son’s taste in music to Richard:
David: Sean’s into rap.
Old Richard: That explains the hairdo.
David: He has a black girlfriend now.
Old Richard: Does that bother you?
David: I like the girl. I don’t like the music.
Old Richard: Some people think it’s urban poetry.
David: Not me.
Old Richard: Now you know what it’s like, the musical generation gap.
David: The appeal escapes me. No melody, the same percussive beat, forced rhymes You know me. I believe in people doing their own thing. But I wish he had a better sense of his identity.
But then the conversation takes a turn for the worse, when Richard reminds David that music might be a metaphor for Jewish identity. “I suppose it’s too much to remind him he’s half Jewish,” Richard says. “You know what I think about that,” says David, to which Richard laments, “With a name like Sean, I’m surprised he’s not warbling Irish ballads.”
And yet it is Richard, the very proponent of Jewish identity, who gives away his belongings to death in order of increasing significance: first his pants (he checks the pockets to make sure he has his credit cards); then his shoes (with worn out soles – read “souls”); then his father’s tallis bag; then his baton (his music); and only then his bathrobe off his back and his soul. Abe, who turns out to be the agent of Richard’s death, would have given away his waltzes before his Jewish identity, but not Richard. And yet, Richard is the end of the line, so David and Sean do not even have their Jewish identity to give to the man buying old clothes. They lack even the accessories to discard, which might be the greatest tragedy of all.
But Brustein’s play is hardly preachy. The play is a world haunted by ghosts with unfinished business. It is the tale of the end of a Jewish line in the Resnick family, and it is the tragedy of Richard, grown old, senile and lonely in his apartment, visited only by his dead wife and the “old clothes man.” It is the story of his son who spends his life trying to fix the mistakes he was allowed to make by his father, who was too busy mourning his dead wife to properly educate him. It is the story of Sean, who would be caught in the middle of his divorced parents’ bickering, if he took off his headphones and Rap music long enough to listen.
But it is also a story of the return of the prodigal son. It is a story of Richard reuniting with Abe, and of David making good with Richard, by declaring his love, as he moves out of Richard’s apartment toward Brooklyn.
The real reason to see “Spring Forward, Fall Back” – and the reason it is such a brilliant play – is that Brustein has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and a great, creative way of capturing realistic characters. This is not the Aristotelian model of creating larger than life characters. The Resnicks are perhaps more ordinary that Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman (“Death of a Salesman”), as they grapple with their melting, Jewish identity and family unit. As their music changes, their needs change.
To the extent that they are able to achieve a transcendent view that allows them to rise above their own particular circumstances and recognize that they are part of a larger family system and tradition, they are able to live as Jewish Americans. Richard puts it best in a conversation with David about Sean. “It wouldn’t hurt for him to know about other cultures either. All kids learn about these days is themselves. They don’t want books, they want mirrors.” David replies, “And all you see in your mirror is the face of the Vanishing Jew.” To which Richard says, “I admit it. We’re all terrified of disappearing into the American mush.”
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor, based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.