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The Babylon Line

by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Reaser
Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Reaser.
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Let's start at the very beginning, which is really the end of Richard Greenberg's play, The Babylon Line, when the central character, Aaron Port (Josh Radnor), is 85 years old.  However, when he begins his story, it is 1967 and Aaron is a 38-year-old struggling writer with one published story.  Once a week he teaches an adult creative writing class, taking the Babylon line from New York to Levittown.
With Aaron in this thoughtful, character-driven play are his students, including four housewives, a sharp and dominating Frieda Cohen (Randy Graff), Midge Braverman, played by irresistibly humorous Julie Halston, a modestly confident Anna Cantor (Maddie Corman) and the outsider, Joan Dellamond (Elizabeth Reaser).  As the two men in the class, Frank Wood is compellingly gruff as Jack Hassenphlug, hounded by his war experiences (“I guess I wake up screaming”) and Marc Adams (Michael Oberholtzer), an impassive, perhaps autistic, young man, working on an interminable masterpiece. 
Greenberg's expressive characterizations are delivered by a top-notch cast but unfortunately, their stories grow tiresome, leisurely unraveling for almost 2-1/2 hours.  The play is a snapshot of life in the late '60's that is not focused on flower children and Woodstock.  His Long Island suburbanites are influenced by remnants of McCarthyism, war protests and a splintering society foreboding danger to this community of conformity already shadowed by elements of a women's movement taking form.  
 Under the direction of Terry Kinney, three friends, Frieda, Midge and Anna, are struggling with traditional duties faced by their submerged personal desires including a dependence on men.  Taking a writing class is threatening and was not their first choice, which were already filled.  When Midge and Anna read their required writing assignment, they present simple anecdotes that manage to reveal some surprising truths.  Anna displays a distorted sunny view of her marriage and Midge tells of her unexpected satisfaction when she first took on the man's job of mowing the lawn.  The assertive Frieda never presents any writing at all.  By the end, however, Randy Graff demonstrates that beneath Frieda's steely exterior are secrets difficult to share.  

The fourth housewife, Joan, is immediately spotted as "different".  She does not approach the other women or join them in their after-class ice-cream treats.  Nor do they want her, as curious as they are about this shy, antisocial young woman who is the only student in the class with a hint of writing talent.

On the other hand, Aaron, lonely and bitter in his marriage, is drawn to the quirky Joan yet when she makes moves on him, he backs away.  There is something provocative, almost dangerous about her.  Most of the time she spends alone in her suburban house, reading and learning the power of words.  This adds to her gift for writing that possibly intimidates Aaron's lack of success.  

Elizabeth Reaser's layered portrayal of Joan displays an openness and truth in discussing life around her and gradually, she inspires the other students.  Josh Radnor captures Aaron's hesitation before revealing the drama of his own life.  

The classroom set with desks and framed presidential portraits was created by Richard Hoover with creative lighting by David Weiner.  Sarah J. Holden's costumes for the women are distinctively reflective of tasteful suburban ladies with an emphasis on the extra style that Frieda takes in her clothes.

Greenberg did an estimable job in finding the depth of these characters with a fast-forward epilogue which makes a fairly satisfying, although tedious, tie-up to the 50-year span framing this play.  Unfortunately, while the cast deftly paints portraits of familiarity, the play fails to draw sparks.  There are more enlightening rides than a ticket on this Long Island Rail Road commuter line.

The Babylon Line
By Richard Greenberg
Directed: Terry Kinney
Previews: Nov. 10, 2016. Opens Dec. 5, 2016. Closes Jan. 22, 2017.
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center
150 West 44th Street, NYC
Running time: Two hours. 20 minutes. One intermission
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 
December 2016

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