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The Babylon Line

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 5, 2016

Frank Wood, Maddie Corman, Julie Halston,
Randy Graff, and Josh Radnor
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Where better to observe the racing heartbeat of change than the epitome of conformity? In Richard Greenberg's play The Babylon Line, which just opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, Levittown on Long Island becomes ground zero for tumultuous events that are destined to transform Americans think about each other. So what if the drift takes a couple of months, a year or two, or a few decades? The more you try to keep progression bottled up, the more it's going to get out, and it's in the moments it does that both Greenberg's play and Terry Kinney's production of it find their fullest, most intriguing expression.

Almost nothing is stated overtly, at least at first, when we're ushered into the reminiscences of Aaron Port (Josh Radnor), while he speaks to us from more or less the present. Aaron is recalling a time from nearly 50 years earlier—1967, to be exact—when he was working at an adult education facility in Levittown, teaching a creative writing class while his own writing career was stalled. (One fairly high-profile magazine article a number of years earlier represents the entirety of his significant output.) For the first couple of weeks, the class was anything but promising, featuring a trio of Jewish busybodies, a middle-aged milquetoast, a young man who's "not right in the head," and a quiet woman whom no one else in the tight-knit community seems to know.

Naturally, this woman, named Joan and played by Elizabeth Reaser, proves the most interesting, as well as the most catalytic, when her yearning for truth impels her to write things that do not immediately sit well with the more passive students. One of her stories involves kicking a baby, and another punching her husband. "Would you say this constitutes a genre?" asks Frieda Cohen (Randy Graff), the most forthright of the other ladies, and one on whom Joan particularly grates. Frieda is very much a go-along-to-get-along type, who believes assault is best limited to gossip and thus conducted behind closed doors, and has no patience for art of this style. "Why does it seem that the literature the critics like is the kind with violence and conflict?", she asks.

Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Reaser
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Aaron's answer, that it embodies "the pulse, the throttle of history," proves eerily accurate as Joan's forthrightness infects her classmates and they begin unleashing their own impulses, with varied but definitive results that show how their closed-off society is itself giving way to the march of time. They learn to open doors and pass through them, even as Aaron himself stumbles: He has powerful feelings for Joan and her work, which alternately blossom and wither as the class stretches from fall to winter, but he can't do anything about them. There's the small fact that he's married, yes, but the bigger obstacle is that beneath his obvious admiration burns the recognition that he's in the presence of genuine genius and he's at best good enough.

Surprisingly, there's a lot of room for this compact construction to expand, and, especially in the last quarter, Greenberg takes it to wild and wonderful places. (Without spoiling anything, parts of it cross path with his own oeuvre.) Here, as in many of his other plays, he demonstrates the way infinitesimal movements can eventually come to span terrific distances, and have an impact no one could foresee at their inception. The more the pieces fall into place in Act II, and the more we see how a limited perspective is the bane of the most forward-thinking characters, too, the more entertaining and rewarding The Babylon Line is.

It's in the more intimate scenes that Greenberg stumbles and stands in the way of the play's greatness. The subsidiary figures, Anna Cantor (Maddie Corman), Midge Braverman (Julie Halston), Jack Hassenpflug (Frank Wood), and Marc Adams (Michael Oberholtzer), lack the depth and detail needed for Greenberg's overall gambit to work. By the end of the play, our understanding of who's important and who's not shifts, but we're not prepared for the most startling revelations when they arrive because the characters are too often treated like a comedian's props along the way. Broad comic performances, which sell the laughs at the extent of the heart beneath them, only further alienate us from people we need to come to know. Ignoring someone for two hours and then showing us in the last 10 minutes how vital they always were is a tricky prospect, and one that Greenberg has not nimbly navigated.

Plus, the vague romance between Joan and Aaron is so watery and unsupported that it's also difficult to accept. Little about Aaron suggests he's prone to cheating on his wife, and for all the faux adventurousness with which Joan is laced, as written and acted she lacks the spicy verve of a convincing chance-taker. We're supposed to believe that Aaron wakes up her latent artistic abilities and sensuality, but so much of Joan's evolution happens offstage that it comes across as more a product of convenience than necessity. And, prior to the last scene, it's not at all clear what she's giving him in exchange. The outcome may be worthwhile, but with so little to grab onto, sticking with these people until you reach it is not easy.

Radnor makes an appealing, studious centerpiece for the action, and he positions Aaron nicely between the intellectual and emotional poles, so you're never entirely sure on which side he falls. Reaser gives luxurious line readings, and injects Joan with plenty of mystery, though that's not sufficient for making her a well-rounded woman. And Graff has outfitted Frieda with a finely tuned passive-aggressiveness that gives her plenty of bite, in her hardest moments as well as her softest (which are comparatively few). Everyone, though, has a moment or two to shine, which Kinney allows them without collapsing the surrounding structure. Richard Hoover's set and Sarah J. Holden's costumes, as lighted by David Weiner (and Darrel Maloney's evocative, era-fixing projections), reinforces the subtly oppressive nature under which they all live.

Subtle is the prevailing watchword throughout; we are constantly aware that this is not a place where sweeping changes can occur, at any rate when they can be identified as such. But if everything happens last in Greenberg's Levittown, it happens nonetheless, no matter how hard the inhabitants might want to try to halt it. Like the titular train line, it's coming whether or not anyone's ready for it. Even so, The Babylon Line could stand to get where it's going faster and better.

The Babylon Line
Through January 22, 2017
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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