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Teacher’s Pests: ‘The Babylon Line’

December 8th, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

'The Babylon Line' (Photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Babylon Line’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

In Richard Greenberg’s latest play, The Babylon Line, set in an adult-education creative writing class in 1967 Levittown, Long Island, one student’s stories show a propensity for violence. This prompts another student, Frieda Cohen (Randy Graff), to ask the teacher, Aaron Port (Josh Radnor), if this constitutes a genre. The line gets a laugh but the same might almost be asked of this and Greenberg’s two most recent plays, The Assembled Parties and Our Mother’s Brief Affair (whose story is actually referenced in The Babylon Line). Each is, in its own way, a bittersweet memory play mainly occupied by middle-class, Jewish characters, for whom the past is always very present.

For all those plays’ sharing of Greenberg’s richly droll dialogue, seasoned with familiar Jewish inflections and Yiddishisms, only The Assembled Parties manages to embrace its audience in the warmth of a sentimental hug that perfectly mixes comedy and sadness within a consistently believable narrative. The Babylon Line, while highly listenable, never finds the right balance between its contrived storyline, self-conscious dialogue, and colorful but artificial characters. In other words, while superficially charming it lacks sustained credibility and structural stability.

Josh Radnor in 'The Babylon Line.' (Photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

Josh Radnor in ‘The Babylon Line.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

The central character is Aaron, a bitter, married, 38-year-old, wannabe writer, with only a single published story, who commutes once a week via the Babylon line from his Greenwich Village apartment to Levittown for his low-paying teaching job. Everything transpires in a classroom, realistically designed by Richard Hoover, and expertly lit by David Weiner; on an elevated platform is a teacher’s desk backed by large windows looking into the night.

Levittown is a postwar community created by a developer so arrogant that, when someone criticizes him, the audience sharply applauds because of his resemblance to a certain other developer. It has often been accused of being the kind of homogenized community that, in its Southern California version, currently is getting its knocks in Dan LeFranc’s Rancho Viejo at Playwrights Horizons.

We see this in the cookie-cutter behavior of the three gossipy, Long Island-accented, Jewish homemakers, Frieda, Midge Braverman (Julie Halston), and Anna Cantor (Maddie Corman), who take the class; their main concerns are things like whether Truman Capote was a homosexual. Two are there because they couldn’t get into the classes they wanted.

Their initial uniformity is sharply contrasted with pretty Joan Dellamond (Elizabeth Reaser); she’s lived here for 18 years but is clearly of an alien species. The others are a peculiar, possibly autistic, young man, Marc Adams (Michael Oberholtzer), writing a “magnum opus,” and an older man, Jack Hassenpflug (Frank Wood), obsessed with his war experiences.

The play is built upon Aaron’s memories, as he narrates them in spotlighted moments; we watch his frustrated interactions with his students; his confrontations with the carping Frieda, who, unconvincingly, can’t think of what to write about; and, among other things, his growing, but oddly aloof, intimacy with the unhappily married, surprisingly talented, and sensually inviting Joan. Classroom sessions include readings by the students of their writings, sometimes acted out by the others.

Just when you think the play is nearing its end, Aaron provides a detailed account of what later happened to each student (information most teachers would never know or even care about); something of a trick ending ties it all together. All this adds a questionable chunk of time to the two hour, 20-minute production.

Director Terry Kinney hypes up the energy, creating a mostly comedic atmosphere, but the humor is spotty, and the darker scenes are hard to reconcile with some of the broad accents and eccentric behavior. And Greenberg’s characters are sometimes inconsistent. When, for example, Frieda, who complains of having nothing to write about, fires off a powerful stream of invective that a good teacher might have turned into a springboard to inspire her, Aaron totally ignores it.

Josh Radnor captures Aaron’s unappealing sourness, Randi Graff makes Frieda’s nastiness sting, and Julie Halston mines her every moment for comic treasure. Elizabeth Reaser’s Joan, with her Tennessee Williams drawl, is interesting and definitely seductive. It’s a shame, though, that she seems as out of place in The Babylon Line as Joan herself does in Levittown.

The Babylon Line
Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre
150 West 65th Street, NYC
Through January 22

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

My Least Favorite Meal of the Day: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” on Broadway

March 20th, 2013 Comments off

I’m not a morning person.
Breakfast at Tiffinay’s, which opened last night on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, hasn’t changed my mind.

Emilia Clarke as Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. (photo by Jason Bell)

The debacled production attempts to adapt Truman Capote’s 1958 novella into a stylized homage to New York City and pulls out all the stops to do so. Sean Mathias, known for his international acclaim from northern Ireland to New Zealand, directed the piece while the trifecta Tony award-winning design team includes Derek McLane (scenic design), Colleen Atwood (costume design) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting design). Throw another Tony award onto the pile with playwright Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out, The Violet Hour, Eastern Standard) and one would expect a sure-fire hit.

Greenberg does his best to capture the sweet and snarky rhythm of Capote’s text, but the language falls flat on the tongues of the two central characters, Holly Golighty (played by Emilia Clarke) and Fred (played by Cory Michael Smith) — the show feels doomed from the moment Smith opens his mouth in a floating accent that migrates from New Orleans to some long forgotten acting class from his alumnus Otterbein University.

It is the pair’s Broadway debut and their lack of magnetism, chemistry and inexplicable ‘wow factor’ slowly dissolve into a trudging attempt to keep the simple story chugging along. Greenberg has broken the theatrical convention of the fourth wall, having Smith deliver much of his dialogue to the audience. You could drive a freight train through the emotional gap and by the time Smith warms up the play is nearly over.

Emilia Clarke and Cory Michael Smith in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. (photo: Nathan Johnson)

Clarke fares better but the deck is stacked against her. The ethereal ghost of Audrey Hepburn’s film interpretation looms in the wings. The creative team smartly chose to leave Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” out of the production and Clarke’s shining moment comes when singing a lonesome alternate melody on the fire escape with Fred gazing from afar. Clarke does her best to keep things moving along, slipping in and out of gorgeous period costumes that seem to hang as slightly off as the character herself.

Mathias’s staging feels clumsy set against the sliding panels illuminated with projections designed by Wendall K. Harrington — yet another reminder that the evening may have been better spent at home with the Netflix version. The actors are put through the paces of a painfully choreographed dance sequence then later directed to imitate horseback riding by using a theatrical convention that further exemplifies their lack of physical command.

There is one cameo appearance that teases the audience with what the production could have been. Veteran actor Lee Wilkof, celebrating his eighth show on Broadway, takes command of the stage as Holly’s manager, O.J. Berman. He packs a one-two punch of a monologue that reveals more about Holly than the rest of the play combined. Loud, brash and with a roller coaster of emotion and intent, perhaps Wilkof will rub off on the younger generation of actors throughout the play’s run.

Like Holly Golightly herself, Breakfast at Tiffany’s seems to have gone astray from the onset, and as many loving hands have apparently tried to shoo her back on track, she’s inevitably a lost soul.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Cort Theatre
138 West 48th Street
www.breakfastattiffanysonbroadway.com 

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Bountiful Broadway as Two Plays Open this Spring

January 30th, 2013 Comments off

While I certainly love my show-stopping dance numbers and 11 o’clock bring-down-the-house ballads, a great Broadway play is nothing to scoff at either. Two productions are heading to Broadway this spring that I’ve got my eye on and you should too:

Emilia Clarke as Miss Holly Golightly (Photo: Jason Bell)

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Richard Greenberg
One of Truman Capote’s most notable works, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is set in New York City in 1943. Fred (Cory Michael Smith), a young writer from Louisiana, meets Holly Golightly (Emilia Clark), a charming, vivacious and utterly elusive good-time girl. Everyone falls in love with Holly – including Fred. But Fred is poor, and Holly’s other suitors include a playboy millionaire and the future president of Brazil. As war rages on in Europe, Holly begins to fall in love with Fred – just as her past catches up with her. This production also features George Wendt as Joe Bell. Sean Mathias directs the production.

Alan U. Schwartz of the Truman Capote Literary Trust said, “I am delighted New York audiences will be the first to see this new adaptation of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ That story continues to inspire artists and capture imaginations all these years later speaks to the timeless quality of Mr. Capote’s prose. Mr. Greenberg has beautifully translated everything that is glorious about this story and its characters to the stage.”

The Details:
The Cort Theatre
Previews begin March 4
www.BreakfastatTiffinaysonBroadway.com

 

Cicely Tyson (Photo: Charles Eshelman)

“The Trip to Bountiful” by Horton Foote
The inspiring American classic tells the story of Carrie Watts (Cicely Tyson), an elderly woman who dreams of returning to her small hometown of Bountiful, TX one last time, against the wishes of her overprotective son (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and domineering daughter-in-law (Vanessa Williams). Her journey becomes a heartbreaking but ultimately life-affirming tale that examines the fragility of memory and celebrates the enduring power of hope and faith.

“The Trip to Bountiful” has a long lineage of success. It premiered as a teleplay on NBC in 1953, starring Lillian Gish as Carrie Watts and opened on Broadway later that year with the same cast, which also included Eva Marie Saint. Mr. Foote adapted the play into an acclaimed 1985 film starring Geraldine Page, for which she won the Academy Award. In 2005, Signature Theatre produced the play Off-Broadway starring Lois Smith, for which she won Lortel, Obie, Outer Critics and Drama Desk Awards. Michael Wilson directs this production.

The Details:
14-week limited engagement at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre
Previews begin March 30
www.TheTriptoBountifulBroadway.com

 

Hanks, Breakfast at Tiffany’s & More Hollywood on the Hudson

October 22nd, 2012 Comments off

It’s no surprise anymore when Broadway attempts to add some extra pizazz to the marquee by sprinkling some Hollywood stardust, whether through film star casting or name brand titles. But four recent news tidbits caught my eye as particularly covered in tinsel (town):

  • Emilia Clarke. Image via O+M.

    It’s official: two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks is coming to Broadway April 2013 in Lucky Guy, a play by the late, beloved Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle). A tale of New York journalism during the 1970’s, this play adds additional cache with its director George C. Wolfe (The Normal Heart). I imagine tickets are already sold out before they go on sale but…a boy can dream.

  • If that’s not “old hollywood” enough for you, how about a new adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Truman Capote’s classic is getting a fresh (and supposedly more faithful than the Hepburn film) adaptation by Tony-winner Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out). Those who are more fantasy geek than Tiffany’s chic will also have reason to check it out; the February 2013 bow will star Game of ThronesEmilia Clarke.
  • Multiple Emmy-nominee Sarah Paulson (Game Change, American Horror Story) may not have above the title multiplex stardom, but to me she’s A-list. And now comes news that she is coming back to the stage to star in Roundabout’s revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly. Paulson will be joined in the sweet love story by recent Broadway everyman Danny Burstein (Follies…perhaps he should do La Cage aux Folles next and continue the pattern?).
  • Don’t count out true Broadway glitter, though. The bigger than life new musical Giant, based on the Liz Taylor – Rock Hudson – James Dean classic, is heading to the Public starring Blog favorites Brian d’Arcy James (Smash) and Kate Baldwin (Finian’s Rainbow). Watch the video from their recent promo shoot (after the jump below) and tell me the Great White Way can’t be just as glamorous.

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