By: Isa Goldberg
“Smash everything.” “Be ruthless,” opines the central character in Richard Greenberg’s new play, set in an adult creative writing class. Indeed, It’s of no great surprise to find that Richard Greenberg’s The Babylon Line, currently at The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is all about writing. Metatheater being Greenberg’s forte, his works thrive on esoteric wordplay, windy narratives, and literary metaphor.
Here, Josh Radnor plays Aaron Port, the novelist/teacher, who is hurdling his way through writer’s block, while teaching creative writing to adults. When the play opens it’s 1967 in Levittown, Long Island and his students, primarily women, are novices at self-expression. This was, after all, an era of conformity, and not one that prided itself in individuation.
As Frieda Cohen, the neighbor with a scrutinizing nose in everyone;s business, and the dominant social force in the community, Randy Graff is as comic as she is tragic. Regardless of the outcome, Frieda is narcissistically attached to the privileges of marriage and motherhood, although clearly under performing at both.
Typically outré, Julie Halston shows us the good, bad, and the ugly of the bored suburban wife, Midge Braverman. Evolving into a firecracker of a character, Midge undergoes an eye opening transformation.
The whiny wife, Anna Cantor played by Maddie Corman, writes a story about her peak experience. “Venice is a city of opposites”, she writes, a truly banal takeoff on Dickens’ famous city of contrasts (A Tale of Two Cities).
Rebellion festers throughout the first Act, most significantly in Elizabeth Reaser’s Joan Dellamond, (Joan of the world). Portrayed as a Southern girl, turned New York bohemian, she is portrayed with the classic despair with which Tennessee WIlliams’ imbued his women. Greenberg’s Joan is only free when she can discover herself in the world of literature, or in the arms of a man, who unlike her husband, radiates the air of danger, intellect, and drive, to which she is drawn.
In addition, there are a couple of men in the class. Tony Award-winning Frank Wood, characteristically, appears to be “on the spectrum” in a variety of roles, including that of Joan’s husband. Marc Adams, on the other hand, portrays a series of characters, each of whom blusters with fame.
While Act I is a lengthy prologue, setting the stage for some kind of liberation, Act II takes a delirious route from literature to life, from fiction to reality, from repression to freedom, that is deliciously Greenberg. That his play comes to such a positive outcome, demonstrates the enduring fragility of those who remain faithful to themselves.
Directed by Terry Kinney with a firm, but generous hand, The Bablyon Line, literally the train ride from Greenwich Village to Levittown on the Long Island Railroad, takes us on an adventure with these women, who are drawn with insight and sensitivity.