It’s almost three decades since Richard Greenberg distinguished himself as the baby boomers’ Philip Barry. For audiences of the late 1980s, the dialogue of Greenberg’s breakout comedy Eastern Standard was as racy and iconoclastic as The Philadelphia Story had been to playgoers in the late 1930s; and the frolicsome plot and screwball characters had a joie de vivre reminiscent of Barry’s Holiday. At a moment when the Great White Way was being colonized by super-sized, techno-heavy musical productions imported from afar, Eastern Standard appeared to be reclaiming the New York Theater District for native wit and homegrown perspectives.
Like Eastern Standard, Greenberg’s new offering, The Babylon Line, has abundant wit; but it’s a melancholy wit that is this playwright’s mid-career trademark. Some critics express impatience with Greenberg’s recent wistfulness—last season, for instance, the reviews of Our Mother’s Brief Affair, an evening-long character sketch embodied by Linda Lavin, were too consistently unforgiving to qualify as mixed. But Greenberg’s best efforts, such as Three Days of Rain and The Assembled Parties, fulfill the early promise of Eastern Standard and then some.
The Babylon Line takes place in the autumn of 1967, when the Summer of Love has just ended. Americans are engaged in gut-wrenching debate about the undeclared war in Southeast Asia. Writers such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, John Updike, and Gore Vidal are titillating some readers and outraging others with tales that suggest the so-called “new morality” (shorthand for sexual permissiveness) is spreading far beyond Haight-Ashbury.
The play’s title refers to the railroad route by which protagonist Aaron Port (Josh Radnor) travels from Greenwich Village to Levittown, Long Island, to teach writing in a municipal adult education program. In narration, Port characterizes Levittown as having “fallen out of the precincts of history” and being proud of that fact. (The play’s title, it should also be noted, calls to mind the angel lamenting the fate of the city of Babylon in the book of Revelation, the apocalyptic epilogue to the Christian Bible.)
At age 38, with only one publication—a short story—on his curriculum vitae, Port is a novelist manqué. And, as a commuter, he’s neither part of the Manhattan literary scene to which he aspires nor integral to the suburb where he earns his meager crust.
Port’s students, concertedly indifferent to the cultural ferment outside their community, live in an Eisenhower-era bubble. The town’s alpha Hadassah matron, Frieda Cohen (Randy Graff), has landed in Creative Writing only because another class is fully subscribed. “Will we be, in this class, expected actually to write?” she asks Port at the outset. When Port recommends that Frieda write about what scares her, she replies: “Most often, I am the cause of fear in others, not the other way around.”
Greenberg has a gift for creating clear, distinct characters with elliptical dialogue comparable to the brushstrokes of Japanese watercolor painting. In the current production, expertly directed by Steppenwolf veteran Terry Kinney, the playwright’s efforts are enhanced by balanced, insightful performances from the seven cast members and the evocative scenic design of Richard Hoover (complemented by David Weiner’s lighting) and costumes by Sarah J. Holden.
Graff gives Frieda an unyielding carapace, yet manages to convey the anger and poignant insecurity underneath her obstreperous façade. Trailing behind Frieda are reluctant acolytes (hilariously portrayed by Maddie Corman and Julie Halston), whose allegiance to their fierce friend melts away as she belittles Port and disrupts the class with catty remarks.
There are two men in the class: a World War II veteran (Frank Wood) and a youth (Michael Oberholtzer) whose antisocial personality Frieda attributes, without evidence, to illicit drugs. And there’s Joan (Elizabeth Reaser), a late arrival with sex appeal and idiosyncratic talent that stir up the others and incite the instructor’s restless libido.
The Babylon Line is about the coincidental nature of success and the disappointments, romantic and professional, that plague middle age. It’s also about the complicated relationship of facts to aesthetic truth. Port urges Joan not to let her fiction-writing be impeded by the details of her autobiography—“You don’t have to tell the truth,” he says, “it’s all right to lie.”
Greenberg thumbs his nose at happy endings. Late in the play, he appears to be wrapping things up, with Port sketching the ostensible fate of each character (with each outcome influenced by felicitous coincidence). Then wisely he retraces his narrative steps to present the story that Port, as the play’s narrator, really “meant to be telling.” Alas, Babylon: it’s a bleak but believable resolution, and Greenberg’s comedy-drama is all the better for it.
Richard Greenberg’s The Babylon Line plays through Jan. 22 at The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater of Lincoln Center Theater (150 West 65th St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets may be purchased by visiting www.lct.org.