New York City Theater
"The Babylon Line"
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Nothing sounds lonelier than a train whistle. In Richard Greenberg’s new play, “The Babylon Line,” the choice between romance and isolation is located in Levittown, the Long Island community that symbolizes conformist suburbia and is a way station to nowhere. A tale of bored housewives and a reluctant teacher of creative writing, the play wanders among several paths without really settling anyplace. Still, Greenberg is never less than stimulating.
His “Take Me Out” won several awards, including a Tony. Purveyor of restlessness, he also penned “Three Days of Rain” and “The American Plan,” works about dreams deferred. “Babylon” is less assured, more diffuse than those tightly written works, more a work in progress. But its intelligence and poignancy are undeniable.
Aaron Port (an excellent Josh Radnor) is an author who deigns to teach creative writing to an adult-ed class of three middle-aged female friends, an inarticulate young man and an older one done in by the weight of years. The sixth participant is the young, pretty, unhappily married Joan Dellamond, a recluse who takes a seductive liking to the married Aaron. Resisting her advances while maneuvering the sometimes hostile, sometimes eager other students is the crux of the play.
Aaron reverse commutes, from Greenwich Village to Levittown. The teaching gig is a stopgap; he has his own work to finish. But he’s a good instructor, lassoing the three older women who are disappointed because the classes they wanted -- French Cooking and Flower Arranging -- were filled. Facing reluctance, he cajoles and tricks his class into digging for something significant in their lives to write about. They want assignments; he counters with “Your lives breed stories.” When they finally do write something, their lightweight memoirs are acted out by the other students.
Joan is different. Her stories are wrested from some dark place, some unconscious, Freudian jungle of her mind. Her flirtation with Aaron – will they or won’t they? – occupies much of the second act, to the evening’s detriment. Filled with starts and stops, “The Babylon Line” is ultimately frustrating and indecisive. Like life.
The acting is sharp, especially Randy Graff as the sarcastic, demanding leader of the pack. Her Frieda Cohen is formidable, challenging, talkative, rebellious and very funny in a terrifying way. Maddie Corman as a vacuous ditz and the wonderful Julie Halston as the third hapless harpy are terrific as well.
The men are damaged: Frank Wood’s bitter former soldier and Michael Oberholtzer’s self-deceptive, “not right in the head” younger man are pinpoint characterizations. Elizabeth Reasor plays Joan as a combination of a Tennessee Williams heroine and a Bryn Mawr senior.
Director Terry Kinney treats the material with respect, drawing the actors into an ensemble of lost souls. The evening’s realism is reinforced by stunning work from Richard Hoover (set), David Weiner (lighting) and Sarah J. Holden (costumes).
In this as in prior works, Greenberg uses language with expressive beauty and stabbing humor, incisively exploring people searching for community, purpose and competence. Although the time is 1967, the funniest line is about Levitt: “That man was a developer, not a person you respect.” Guess whom that could also fit?
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 21, 2016