by Samuel L. Leiter
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.
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).