Catch is one of the few basic children’s games that can extend into every phase of life. Taking turns tossing and catching the ball furnishes the game with built-in respites, which give the participants a chance to reflect on past choices and prepare for future ones.
Richard Hollman stretches that metaphor into “Back and Forth” — a modest play about two friends reuniting after a year and a half of Covid-induced isolation. Their routine game of catch morphs into a catch-up about their time apart. The resulting production — playing out in Central Park’s East Meadow, rimmed by rock outcrops — blossoms into a congenial meditation on the thieving nature of time and the various chapters of adulthood, and yet it’s missing the one thing every game of toss requires: gravity.
Hollman also stars as Marty, newly single in his late 30s with a penchant for reliving his glory days, while Chris Roberti plays Drew, a young father of a similar age who’s trapped in an apartment so cluttered that maneuvering around barefoot feels “like walking on an everything bagel.” Marty’s eager for the reunion but Drew remains guarded, clutching a secret as tightly as his mitt. The director, Katie Young, lets the initial monotony of their languid throws settle into a steady rhythm, making the disjointedness of their conversation all the more obvious.
Hollman’s script sketches out standard shifts in domestic life for Marty and Drew, as they deal with aging bodies, babies and breakups. And though Drew’s shiftiness hints at something more insidious, the play opts for the simplest of the infinite horrors a quarantine play could choose. Simple but still true: Even the smallest secret, when held by a dear friend, can feel like virulent betrayal.
Running only 45 minutes, “Back and Forth” has little time to offer profundity beyond this. The show’s real intrigue lies in its unique staging. The audience sits several yards away, witnessing the action while tuning in to the men’s dialogue on radios the production provides. Both performers humorously improv with the passing joggers, children and dogs that unknowingly insert themselves into the action, and are able to reorient each other back to the script with ease.
There is also the amiability of Young’s straightforward direction. The cadence of Marty and Drew pitching and catching mirrors the surges in their emotions. And there are entire stretches with no speech, with the sound of the ball thudding into a mitt like the dull tick of an aging clock.
“Back and Forth” initially premiered in fall 2021 — a season when variants of the virus threatened to isolate New Yorkers once again — so much of the play’s affection still rests on its timing. While the two years since then may seem microscopic in the grander scheme of things, they contain an eternity of major events. And though the play raises evergreen themes, “Back and Forth” feels not just set in 2021, but stuck in it.
Back and Forth
Through July 23 at Central Park East Meadow, Manhattan; backandforthplay.com. Running time: 45 minutes.
This review is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.