BWW Review: Richard Greenberg's THE BABYLON LINE Is a Warm and Funny Excursion
The Long Island Rail Road doesn't have a station in Levittown, so the central character of Richard Greenberg's clever, sentimental and occasionally steamy drama travels the play's namesake, THE BABYLON LINE, to nearby Wantagh, in order to arrive at his weekly gig teaching creative writing to adults, most of whom are only there because their preferred classes were full.
The year is 1967, and the first crop of young post-war Americans who populated the cookie-cutter homes described by folk singer Pete Seeger as "Little boxes made of ticky tacky" are now comfortably ensconced in their lives of suburban uniformity.
Aaron Port (drolly snarky and emotionally bottled Josh Radnor) is 86 years old when the play begins and the story he tells takes place nearly half a century earlier, when he was a struggling writer living in Greenwich Village, barely able to hide his resentment as he watches his contemporaries change the world with their words.
His new teaching job pays decently, and he puts little effort into planning lessons; simply asking his students to write something - anything - and then take comments after they're read to the class. But then, the fact that few of his six students ever come in prepared with something to read means he often has to wing it by encouraging group discussions.
Fortunately, also unfortunately, three of his charges are a talkative bunch. Randy Graff, Julie Halston and Maddie Corman are golden as a trio of housewives looking to expand their minds within socially acceptable limits.
Graff dominates scenes as Frieda, a confrontational bully disguised as an open-minded community leader. Her description of William Levitt ("The man was a developer. That's not a person you respect.") received applause during at least one preview performance.
Halston plays her best pal, the always agreeable Midge, and Corman is sweetly comic as Anna, who writes of a happy family vacation in Europe ("Venice is a study in contrasts.") to escape the reality of her troubled marriage. (Those familiar with Greenberg's recent OUR MOTHER'S BRIEF AFFAIR may catch a connection regarding Anna.)
Aaron's male students are less participatory. The sullen Jack (Frank Wood) is emotionally damaged from his wartime experiences and young Marc (Michael Oberholtzer), who the ladies describe as a brilliant boy who wasted his mind with dope, keeps passing on requests to read, saying he's in the midst of writing "a magnum opus."
But what makes this episode of Aaron's life a worthy memory begins with the entrance of Joan (an excellent Elizabeth Reaser), a Greenwich Village refugee who married the only man she knew who wasn't an artist and moved out to Long Island with him. Though she's lived in the community for eighteen years, Joan keeps to herself and is looked upon with suspicion by others, especially Frieda.
The married Aaron is fascinated by Joan's uncensored talent and is tempted by her sexual advances, which are played with the right touch of aching restraint in director Terry Kinney's faded memory of a production.
Greenberg's choice to include a lengthy "what happened to then next" epilogue is the only misguided move, especially when points concerning Aaron and Joan get rushed into an ending, but THE BABYLON LINE is still a pleasing excursion with good humor and warm pathos.