The Babylon Line

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Frank Wood, Maddie Corman, Julie Halston, Randy Graff, and Josh Radnor

 

 

by Brian Scott Lipton

 

There are stories within stories with stories in Richard Greenberg’s complex and somewhat unconventional The Babylon Line—which is perhaps only apropos for a work set in a Levittown, Long Island adult education writing class in 1967. A master wordsmith with a gift for poetic language and a sharp eye for characterization, Greenberg keeps us engrossed during this meandering journey, even if we’re still a bit flummoxed when the proverbial train finally pulls into the station.

 

In part, that’s because like many expert writers, Greenberg knows the rules so well he feels free to break them, here, eschewing a simple linear plot. The play not only is meant to be a narrated flashback by now-octogenarian Aaron Port (Josh Radnor), but also features stories told by Aaron’s students (played by, among others, the excellent Frank Wood, Julie Halston, Maddie Corman, and Michael Oberholtzer) that are sometimes acted out; a lengthy epilogue about all the characters that we’re told to forget right after we’ve heard it; plus coincidences, digressions, and allusions galore. It’s amazing the play doesn’t collapse under its own weighty ambitions.

 

Indeed, Greenberg wants not to just talk about the art of writing here; the work is also a stinging commentary on suburban mores, McCarthyism and Vietnam. And above all, it’s a love story of sorts. Yes, there is a beating heart at the center of The Babylon Line: Jean Dellamond (an impressive Elizabeth Reaser), whom we immediately sense (and not solely because of her Southern accent and slightly shy demeanor) is not like the other ladies of Levittown.

 

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Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Reaser

 

But it’s not just that Jean isn’t interested in PTA meetings (for reasons that become clear) or flower arranging. It’s that she truly is a writer, one who summons the strength to tell the entire, unvarnished truth about her strange life. The others in the class share anecdotes or tiny memoirs, if anything at all. While she comes in once with a piece of writing, the town’s queen bee Freida Cohen (the consistently scene-stealing Randy Graff) never reads it. She does little but command fear, even among her friends, and we later learn just how cleverly her brash exterior has been designed to cover up her hidden sorrows and secrets like a perfect shield of armor.

 

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Frank Wood, Randy Graff

 

Jean’s gift with the pen draws her to Aaron, whom at 38 has had one small literary success. Almost instantly, she sees Aaron as either a kindred spirit or means of escape. And while Jean desperately wants him to move towards her physically—both are less-than-happily married—Aaron is unable to move in any direction (other than the one dictated by the LIRR). In Reaser’s nuanced portrayal, Jean is clearly no saint—indeed, she’s almost as troubled as Blanche DuBois—but she isn’t exactly a sinner either.

 

In an equally difficult role, Radnor deftly captures Aaron’s indecisiveness (he can’t even fully commit to being an atheist), vague despair, and basic hopelessness. As Aaron admits in his opening monologue, the story he is about to tell us will not necessarily put him in the best light. Indeed, it’s to Radnor’s credit, and Terry Kinney’s fine direction, that while we both sympathize with and somewhat dislike Aaron simultaneously in the 1960s, we are glad to know that in the long run, his life has turned out “reasonably well.”

 

If that’s all you ask of this play—to turn out “reasonably well”—you’ll be more than pleased that you bought your ticket. Those seeking an easy ride might be better off staying home.

 

 

The Babylon Line. Through January 22 at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater (150 West 65th Street) through January 22. www.lct.org/shows/babylon-line Call 212-239-6200 for tickets.

 

 

Photos: Jeremy Daniel

 

 

 

 

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