When the lights first come up on the play The Babylon Line, actor Josh Radnor, alone on stage, looks intently at the audience and says, “The End.”
It’s a terrific start for a play that ultimately wants to be about the stories we tell ourselves and the ones that we let define our lives. In that opening monologue, Radnor sets up his character as a writer and “lapsed atheist” who believes that not until people die can we know how their stories end.
“I continue to believe there is no God, but suspect for me He might make an exception,” Radnor says.
The opening speech, a present-day framing device for the play, suggests Radnor is now an old man (“I look wonderful,” he says, to audience laughter) and is looking back on events that occurred in 1967. “I may not come off well in it,” he admits.
After nine seasons playing Ted Mosby on CBS’s hit sit-com How I Met Your Mother, Radnor comes off extremely well onstage. He brings gravitas and intelligence to the character of Aaron Port, a floundering 38-year old writer from Greenwich Village who takes a job teaching an adult ed creative writing class in Levittown, New York.
“Even artists work for money,” he explains, noting that he makes fifteen bucks a week, after deducting transportation.
Playwright Richard Greenberg loudly signals his intentions by setting the play in Levittown—a ticky-tack planned community in Long Island built right after World War Two. It is the archetype of a character-free, homogenized suburb, and has become shorthand for a place that stifles any originality.
Sure enough, the first three women who come in to take Port’s class are stereotypes of suburban Jewish mothers—slightly vacuous, gossipy, and focused completely on their children. None of them has any interest in self-expression—they ended up in the class because their choices of French cooking and current events were all filled.
A fourth woman named Joan comes into the class and sits apart from the others. It’s quickly apparent that she’s the different one, with an artsy soul and no interest in being part of the gossipy-moms circle. It’s also apparent that she and Aaron feel an immediate connection.
They linger together after the first class (and every subsequent one) sharing heavily-loaded conversation. When Aaron describes Levittown as a “bedroom community,” Joan gives a sly smile.
“People do sleep here. I can attest to that, if that should be necessary. For any reason,” she says standing close to him.
Actress Elizabeth Reaser (of Twilight) gives Joan a gentle Southern accent (most of the time) that suggests a moony Blanche DuBois. It’s seductive and beguiling, but doesn’t completely make sense for this New York woman.
Joan moved to Levittown with her husband after they met many years earlier in the Village. She originally thought he was a creative type who quoted Emily Dickinson, but after they married came “years of dinners I’d endured during which we discussed the green beans, lengthily.”
Unable to have children and disappointed in her husband and her life, Joan hid away for seven years in her Levittown house. Now she has emerged, and it seems like she and Aaron will be able to bring each other back to life. He’s having trouble writing and doesn’t seem excited by his own marriage.
The show is most alive when the two of them are on the stage. We hear way too much from the mothers in the class whose own dramas are so small that the revelations in their stories seem ho-hum.
Greenberg has a beautiful way with language and a track-record of strong and interesting plays (like the Tony-winning Take Me Out), so it’s disappointing to see him resort to suburban caricatures that have been done and overdone.
There should also be a moratorium on all plays and stories set in creative writing classes. It’s a tired device that should have been abandoned after Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. (Nobody is going to do it better.) People can reveal their true selves without a creative writing class.
At the end of the play, Greenberg takes a twenty-minute diversion to describe what happened to each of the characters in the next fifty years. At least with Aaron and Joan, it’s not what you would have expected.
The Babylon Line has lyrical writing and strong performances by Radnor and Reaser. But like the train line it’s named after, the show ultimately needs a more inspiring destination.
The Babylon Line is playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse theater at Lincoln Center in New York, through January 22, 2017. Book tickets here.