The Babylon Line: Running Off the Tracks
Like the Long Island Rail Road train line that this play refers to, Richard Greenberg’s The Babylon Line works quite well about half the time, and the rest seems to get delayed or derailed. It’s a real shame too, because the performances are mostly top notch. Characters that you want to engage with, but sadly, it’s in Greenberg’s storytelling that the play goes off track, and it’s surprising in how obvious a way it does. He begins his story with a generally likable Josh Radnor, playing a possible stand-in for Greenberg, as the writer and teacher, Aaron Ports, speaking directly to us. He’s going to tell us a story, about what happened back in 1967 when a stalled writer becomes a teacher of creative writing to a group of adults in Levittown, Long Island. At first this feels inclusive and engaging, but at a certain point about half way through Act I, and most of Act II, this device begins to feel distancing, lazy and adolescent. Especially, in the way that he puts so much weight on the narration. One would expect more from the talented playwright of such great plays, The Assembled Parties and Take Me Out. This narrator device and its structure becomes the play’s worst enemy, sending it wildly off track at some points, or just stalling it along the way, like an old uncle who forgets the point of the story he’s telling. Or a train held in a station for no obvious reason other then to make up time.
There is something powerful that snakes its way though this memory play that Greenberg is attempting to tell here. The strength of it lies almost entirely in the interpersonal moments of these characters back in 1967. Forget about the narrator, that device seems basically unskilled and gets in the way constantly. But when he just lets the story unfold, there is something beautiful being played out between the teacher and his writing class students, most excellently played by a cast of pros. The absolute shame of this is that within the classroom, there is an assortment of the most interesting characters around. Randy Graff is utterly fantastic as the powerful fierce lioness of a housewife, Frieda Cohen. Maddie Corman inhabits the part of the complicated housewife Anna Cantor (a nod to the female lead of one of his other plays, Our Mother’s Brief Affair), and the always-amazing Julie Halston plays the eccentric Madge Braverman as something most spectacular to take in. As presented here, these definitely are characters, a study in uniqueness, and these ladies are giving us something compelling to engage with. Greenberg throws into the mix two male students, Frank Wood as the rough war vet, Jack Hassenpflug, and Michael Oberholtzer as the odd Marc Adams, and a truly wonderful concoction is created. They border on being caricatures, but never seem to fall into that trap. But the main ingredient that changes it all from nostalgic memories to a story that has possibility is Elizabeth Reaser, as the talented agoraphobe, Joan Dellamond. Her Joan is where all the tension and the awkwardness resonate from, and every time this class of students comes together, because of Joan, there is an energy and a drive.
In the monologues in-between is where the overly structured falseness stalls the movement that started in the classroom. In that writing class, the story feels real and truthful, but each and every time Greenberg veers out of the classroom and propels Ratner to break the third wall, and talk to us directly, the play loses all sense of authenticity and importance. The set works in pretty much the same way (set: Richard Hoover, lighting: David Weiner and costumes: Sarah Holden). It is wonderful to behold in the story, but fails to connect when the action is outside of the classroom. The narration stalls the movement of the play, and sometimes, what is being told to us feels completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The worst is the awkward subway scene that is played out between Ratnor’s outside life and a fellow writer, (played also by Oberholtzer). It feels superficial and inauthentic, but worst of all, it, and many other similar scenes appear to only muddle the story. Act II seems to overflow with these flowery moments of unneeded exposition. In one moment in Act II, the character actually tells us that this one section should be forgotten, as it has no relevance.
The important part of the story is back in the classroom, not in the characters outside and/or post-classroom lives. So why are we wasting our time with all that chatter? In the moment the information feels charming, funny, and even intriguing, but mostly irrelevant, but then to be told by Greenberg/Ratner/Ports that we were right, feels like we’ve been cheated. My only wish was for someone, maybe the director Terry Kinney, to have listened to Greenberg’s storytelling as much as the students are listening to each other, and offer some advice. Help him focus in on the real moments of truth, rather than try to tidy it all up with a nice intricate bow. It’s almost comically insane that a story about an adult education creative writing class taught by a writer gets thrown off track by the writer of the play. If only he had the confidence to stick to those incredible interactions in that Levittown, Long Island classroom, we all would have had a better time on this journey.