Josh Radnor (Liberal Arts, Mercy Street) and Elizabeth Reaser (The Twilight Saga, Hello My Name Is Doris) play a writer and his student in Richard Greenberg’s new drama The Babylon Line, which opened Monday at Lincoln Center Theater. Fine as these actors are, each with a growing presence on New York stages, my focus was pulled elsewhere in this provocative but maddening play.
The introduction is as familiar as the descending chords in an eight-bar blues. In a classroom that telegraphs The Sixties (presidential portraits on the wall end with LBJ), Radnor’s Aaron Port announces, “The end.” He’s kidding (bad joke); he wants to tell us the story of that time when he, a no-longer young writer, left his wife and Greenwich Village apartment one evening each week for a Long Island suburb, to teach an adult education class. Radnor limns Aaron with a crackling field of desperation around his otherwise collegial air. He needs the money. His one published short story is already an obscurity you can only find on microfiche at the better local libraries, which don’t include the one in Levittown, where this took place. “The year is 1967 and I am 38 years old,” he tells us. “I look fretful. So much has turned out badly.”
Levittown is the Ur development, a template for Malvina Reynolds’ song “Little Boxes.” As one who grew up in a similar Lawn-Guy Land housing tract, I can attest to the fact that the three ladies and two men who file into Aaron’s classroom have been well-coached on maw than jest the axcent. They are proud of their gardens, which have been featured in the local shoppers. They have begun reading Norman Mailer and have heard that Truman Capote may be homosexual. They know one another from the Sisterhood. They were really hoping to get into Contemporary Events and Politics, but had to settle for creative writing, which has to be better than Flower Arranging, am I right?
The superbly played students include Anna (Maddie Corman), who can’t get over her cleverness at describing Venice as “a study in contrasts”; Midge (Julie Halston), who has discovered Zen and the Art of Lawn Mowing; Jack (Frank Wood), haunted by flashbacks to a wartime experience; and Marc (Michael Oberholtzer), who insists he’s working on a “magnum opus,” of which there is precious little evidence.
The leader of this band is Frieda Cohen (Randy Graff), who gets right down to brass tacks. “My question is: Will we be, in this class, expected actually to write?” When Aaron responds in the affirmative, Frieda admits, “Now that perturbs me a little.” Frieda will prove to be a formidable foil to both Aaron and the woman who will become Teacher’s Pet. That’s Joan Dellamond (Reaser), who arrives late and sticks out from this intimidating klatsch like a sore thumb. She’s an outsider, childless, and knows the other women hate her. Like Frieda, she has Aaron’s number, noting that “Levittown is not where people generally come seeking opportunities.”
Joan is also a gifted story-teller, dipping into her subconscious with an ease that puts the rest of the students off. She’s desperate for human contact in this sterile world and hoping to find it in this troubled man. That makes her fairly predictable, and to my mind less interesting, than Frieda. Frieda has everybody’s number, and she isn’t about to let a smug city boy or a predatory outlier upset her well-appointed apple cart. She’s a killer, practiced in the art of leaving no visible marks on her victims. Most of all, she resists — she resents — Aaron’s urging that they dig down to find something dark in their lives to write about. When there’s so much joy all around? Not a chance.
When Frieda finally unloads, her rage is barely contained, and it’s thrilling — especially as delivered by Graff, who is magnificent. “So one day I wake up in a town that sometimes seems to be universally maligned, but I get an unobstructed view of the sunset and you tell me this can’t be a story because there’s no History in it?” she all but spits at him. “Let me tell you something, Mr. Port. You’ll find that in heaven (should you get there) very little happens.” Oh, righteousness!
This is the point where you might expect Aaron to leap for joy and sing hallelujah, like Anne Sullivan watching Helen Keller as she realizes all those squiggling fingers mean water. Instead, Greenberg and his director, Terry Kinney, snuff her out like an annoyance. Aaron accuses Frieda of “grandstanding,” and quickly returns to his push-me, pull-you game of Risk with Joan.
Were I more generous of spirit, I would speculate that this is the playwright’s intention, to bury Aaron in his failure. Instead, it’s where I lost interest in The Babylon Line, and I felt that Greenberg did as well, since the ending — the several endings — are a muddle of inconclusiveness. I want Frieda Cohen to have her play.