Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Richard Greenberg's THE BABYLON LINE at Lincoln Center Theater

     Richard Greenberg's plays have been produced in New York for three decades now, so we know what to expect--highly literate, witty, bittersweet depictions of middle-class, usually Jewish life. There is often an uptight man and a charismatic woman at the center. Yes, I know, his most successful play, TAKE ME OUT, doesn't fit this description. Structure has never been Greenberg's strong suit. His plays tend to ramble in ways that might work well in a novel but don't necessarily work on stage. THE BABYLON LINE is an enjoyable, though flawed, play superbly acted.
     The play takes place in a classroom in Levittown, Long Island in 1967, that cusp year before all the revolutions of 1968. Vietnam was already causing a radical split in the country, second wave feminism was beginning, sexual freedom was in the air. In this classroom and atmosphere, Aaron Port (Josh Radnor), is conducting an adult education creative writing class. Most of the Jewish housewives in the class are there because their first choice course was full. There's also a middle-aged veteran and a strange young man. Aaron Port has had one story published but so far has not shown any writing potential himself. Nor does he display any talent as a teacher. The three housewives--are they the fates or the furies?--are dominated by Frieda Cohen (Randy Graff), a ruthless, outspoken defender of the Levittown way of life. Her companions Anna (Maddie Corman), and Midge (Julie Halston), both suffer quietly from unhappy marriages. Despite Frieda's protestations, Levittown doesn't seem to be the ideal neighborhood pictured in the ads. The wild card in the class is Joan Dellamond (Elizabeth Reaser), who seems to represent the liberations that are taking place outside this classroom. Joan has literally imprisoned herself in her own home for seven years. As Frieda points out, no one in Levittown knows her. Joan is terrified of the judgments of these women (for good reason). She is the only woman who has come to this class because she really wants to write and what she writes are stories of entrapment and domestic violence--punching her equally agoraphobic husband and literally kicking a baby who has accidentally crawled into her living room. Joan wants the class to be artistically liberating. She also wants a bit of sexual liberation with Aaron who, though disdainful of the world of Levittown, is as conventional as Frieda.
     The classroom scenes are very well written. They are sometimes funny, but often filled with tension, particularly in the battles between Frieda and Joan who from the outset see each other as enemies. The best scene in the play is the one in which they are alone in the classroom. Yet, as usual with Greenberg's plays, THE BABYLON LINE desperately needs editing. Aaron's character is little more than a cipher, yet he narrates the play and functions as its central character. He's a writing teacher who can neither publish nor teach--he ends up as a successful television writer, which is probably anathema to Greenberg. He spurns Joan's blatant advances but doesn't seem more than comfortable in his marriage. Greenberg never makes clear what Aaron wants, which makes him difficult to act. Josh Radnor has to hold his part and the play together by the force of his own personality. The second major problem with the play is that Greenberg has provided too many endings. Aaron narrates the play as an old man in the present and tells us the fate of each of the characters, then tells us to forget all he has narrated in the past fifteen minutes and gives us the final scene between Aaron and Joan, yet another scene of Joan advancing and Aaron retreating. Did we really need to move beyond the confines of the classroom in 1967?  Did we need another spurned seduction?
     Elizabeth Reaser has a tendency to deliver all of her lines in the same plaintive tone. Joan is a tough cookie who becomes a feminist icon--why is Reaser delivering her lines like she's playing Laura in THE GLASS MENAGERIE? Randy Graff, Maddie Corman and Julie Halston bring humor and complexity to their parts. Frank Wood is convincing as the male voice of suburban discontent.
Terry Kinney has given a relatively static play some convincing movement and the right rhythm.
     THE BABYLON LINE has some fine moments but doesn't totally cohere.

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