Port’s students present challenges. This inexperienced, reluctant mentor’s ability to cope is sorely tested by each of their quirks, fantasies and bigotries.
Jack Hassenpflug (Frank Wood, masterfully detailed), a veteran with PTSD issues, can only write about one event—over and over. Marc Adam, a pleasant looking, yet bizarre, young man (Michael Oberholtzer, who somehow makes this character work) proves that still waters do not always run deep.
The women prove more challenging, beginning with Frieda Cohen (Randy Graff, absolutely terrific), the self-appointed social doyenne of Levittown, who, with Anna Cantor (Maddie Corman, who makes much of what could have been a weak character) and Midge Braverman (Julie Halston, always delicious), have registered for the writing class because all the other classes they wanted to take were full.
Arriving late is Joan Dellamond (a fascinating Elizabeth Reaser) who is the catalyst for the upheavals to follow. Joan has never integrated herself into the queendom of Frieda, nor socialized with any of her neighbors and is sexually more ambitious than the others, even making a play for Aaron.
As these diverse characters banter and bring in their pathetic writing samples, Joan’s presence gets Frieda’s back up. Frieda, whose language clearly indicates that she is an educated, if tunnel-visioned, lady, finds Joan’s contributions to the class—surreal, violent tales—offensive, and for good reason, since they are based on actual events in her life, which we sort of find out later, although Greenberg is awfully cagey about what is real and what is not.
Joan’s stories are enacted by the other actors making them vivid and surprising for their ability to contrast seeming middle-class comforts with a troubled, violent personality. This leads to the other women bringing in their writing contributions, including a ludicrously clichéd travelogue, which further scratches open long held animosities which come pouring out.
By the end of the play, only Aaron can unscramble the multiple plot lines with a closing speech that truly doesn’t tie things up, but does leave the audience with a sense that Aaron’s adventure in Levittown affected him deeply. Aaron even tosses in a witty reference to another Greenberg play which elicited a friendly guffaw from those who saw that work (which—hint—starred Linda Lavin).
Although The Babylon Line is as funny and literate as his previous works, Greenberg seems to be struggling to unite all the separate threads into a smooth whole, awkwardly depending on the central character’s breaking the fourth wall. Certainly, the play is populated by well-drawn personalities, but that isn’t enough to make it work.
Richard Hoover’s set was a perfect reproduction of an unbeautiful classroom and Sarah J. Holden’s costumes were character and period perfect. David Weiner’s lights proved indispensable in keeping the 1967 and 2015 periods clearly defined.
Terry Kinney directed with a sense of rhythm that keeps the many asides flowing. He allows the actors great leeway in their characterizations which adds color to the proceedings.
The Babylon Line (through January 22, 2017)
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center, West 65th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission