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The Babylon Line
Photogaph: Jeremy Daniel

Theater review: Richard Greenberg commutes to 1967 Long Island on The Babylon Line

Written by
David Cote

If your play is narrated by a “promising” author teaching fiction in night school, you might want to pepper the script with passages of sparkling prose. No worries there: The Babylon Line is by Richard Greenberg; barbed repartee, shiny epigrams, and baroque arias of loss and longing all come with the territory. There’s bad writing, as well: awkward attempts at literary self-expression by attendees of the class shakily run by Aaron Port (Josh Radnor). But those blunt, unlovely fragments mainly set off the flowering talent of Joan Dellamond (Elizabeth Reaser), a poetic soul out of place in ticky-tacky suburban Long Island in 1967.

Aaron commutes once a week from Greenwich Village to grimly instruct a motley group of adults. His talent-challenged charges include three chatty Jewish housewives (Randy Graff, Maddie Corman and a roaring Julie Halston), a WWII vet who wakes up screaming (Frank Wood) and a cheerfully blank young man (Michael Oberholtzer). Joan is late to the first class and immediately fascinates Aaron, her Southern lilt and dreamy affect marking her as a romantic outsider. Soon he learns she’s trapped in a bad marriage, and Levittown anomie both stokes and stymies her creative impulses. As Joan self-diagnoses: “I’m suffering from Acute Repressed Graphomania!”

Director Terry Kinney steers a fine cast to a nice balance of whimsy and wistfulness: Radnor radiates a rumpled, restless charm, and his scenes with the languid yet spiky Reaser show genuine heat. As the aggressively normalizing Mrs. Cohen, Graff makes a meal of her role, bullying the teacher and shooting daggers at Joan. 

The play itself, for all its enviable eloquence, has problems. Greenberg’s first act—establishing Port as a fairly reliable narrator, his students as products of their time, and dangling the possibility of an affair with Joan—is a fun and satisfying stretch for Greenberg fans. It’s the plotting and momentum of the second in which things grow fuzzy and attenuated, as the playwright vacillates between a portrait of the frustrated artist and a semi-serious critique of postwar American conformism. The digressive wrapping up of narrative threads in the last 20 minutes unfolds less like compelling drama and more like dutiful housekeeping. Still, when Greenberg's creations babble on, you can't help but lean in.

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Off Broadway). By Richard Greenberg. Directed by Terry Kinney. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission. Through Jan 22. Click here for full ticket and venue information. 

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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