The Babylon Line – Spelunking for Stories

What happens when denizens of an ordinary, middle class, 1967 community look deeper into lives they think of as humdrum to discover they have quite a bit to say?

Aaron Port (Josh Radnor), is a 38 year-old “writer,” who once had a story published. “It’s impossible to find a first class subject if you haven’t had a war,” is an example of flimsy excuses. Hard up, he begrudgingly takes a low paying, once a week job, teaching Creative Writing to an adult education class in Levittown, Long Island. This necessitates a reverse commute from Greenwich Village and is responsible for half a double entendre title. Aaron morphs back and forth from narrator (spotlight, cast freezes) to participant.

The mostly entertaining show, which features a number of well drawn, idiosyncratic characters as well as playwright Richard Greenberg’s signature wit, sympathy, and splendid use of language, is riddled with incongruities. We’re oddly never told what else Aaron does to support himself. Why he informs us at the top of the piece that he’s looking back from 2015 is utter mystery. His reflective “so much turned out badly” is misleading; in fact, it didn’t. Additionally, the piece seems to end two or three times, making the experience bottom heavy and overlong.

 Photo: Jeremy Daniel

 Josh Radnor, Elisabeth Reaser

Three friends from the “sisterhood” (Jewish Temple wives) are delighted to find each other in class. Frieda Cohen (Randy Graff,  thoroughly believable through bright and dark) is a garrulous woman with strong opinions, civic reputation – “You may have seen my house… with a garden featured in Newsday…” – and a guilty secret. Anna Kantor (Maddie Corman), who would’ve preferred flower arranging, is pushed to defend her all important status quo. Midge Braverman (Julie Halson with pitch perfect tone), disappointed that French cooking was full, seems to be there as Frieda’s Sancho Panza. Joan Dellamond (Elizabeth Reaser), is articulate, literate, recently agoraphobic, and class provocateur. She doesn’t belong.

Men include sweetly autistic Marc Adams (Michael Oberholtzer), a perhaps 30 year-old who lives with his mother and boasts work on a magnum opus whose length changes at every telling, and Jack Hassenpflug (the reliably fine Frank Wood), a blue collar Korean War veteran who suffers from post traumatic stress.

As Aaron refuses to assign topics and no one thinks they have anything sufficiently original to share, getting students to write is like pulling teeth. The housewives would rather discuss whether Truman Capote is gay or secretly bedding the women he squires around. Jack starts the ball rolling just “to get it down.” Midge comes in with an essay about the meditation (not her word) of lawn mowing. Anna “describes” a family vacation. Authors are inadvertently illuminated, reactions telling.

It’s Joan who shakes up both the class and its instructor. Not only are her stories well written and extremely startling, but eschewing small talk, she lingers, relating intimate specifics of her life, pressing for personal details from Aaron. It’s clear she’s making herself available. Though one infers he’s attracted, we never see a struggle not to betray a barely referred-to wife.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Frank Wood, Randy Graff

Over the term, we learn more about each student and a great deal about Joan. One of several endings includes a what-happened-after section which is both credible and wonderfully imaginative. Everybody has stories if one goes spelunking.

Josh Radnor (Aaron) makes an excellent narrator, but an insubstantial participant. As the story progresses, despite set-up to the contrary, the character turns out to be something of a nebbish. The actor seems to go blank on too many potentially decisive occasions. This could easily be due to direction or writing.

Elizabeth Reaser is a compelling, multi-layered Joan, adding physical embodiment to choices that come from a solid core. Restrained seduction is especially well played.

Director Terry Kinney keeps the piece moving, creating attractive onstage pictures. There is, however, a missed opportunity for small idiosyncrasies.

The schoolroom set by Richard Hoover is period appropriate and well dressed. Love the old photos of presidents. Peripheral projections of outside locale (Darrel Maloney) add to atmosphere, especially when they depict snow in conjunction with stage weather.

David Weiner’s lighting is skilled. Before the play begins, we can see ourselves reflected in a wall of windows. After, the designer manages to control our view. When Aaron meets a more successful peer at the station, we effectively see only the two men and train lights moving left to right in the glass.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Frank Wood, Maddie Corman, Julie Halston, Randy Graff, Josh Radnor

The Babylon Line by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Terry Kinney
Lincoln Center Theater at The Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th Street
Through January 22, 2017

About Alix Cohen (1332 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.