The Babylon Line (Off Broadway)
We gave it a B
It’s comforting to think that a life well lived is like a map — that, as things wind down, you’ll be able to look back and see the milestones, the Sliding Doors-style decisions, that led to where you are now. In his latest play, two entertaining acts set over the course of a few weeks in the late ‘60s, Tony-winning writer Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out) channels that concept, pinpointing the exact moment when the trajectory of a life changes.
In the fall of 1967, Aaron (Josh Radnor, How I Met Your Mother) is an author with one decent years-old byline under his belt, relegated to teaching an adult education writing class populated by some typical small-town characters: a trio of chatty housewives (Randy Graff, Maddie Corman, and Julie Halston), a nightmare-plagued veteran of the Korean War (Frank Wood), and a slow-witted veteran of the drug wars (Michael Oberholtzer, Hand to God). Slightly less expected is Joan (Elizabeth Reaser, Twilight), a socially graceless young woman whose shy affectation and antisocial behavior practically make her a foreign species in ‘60s suburban Long Island. At first, the group dynamic is awkward: Aaron’s students are afraid to delve deep and so only produce surface-level work, but as Joan starts to share her unflinchingly honest and unsettling point of view, the others eventually open up and follow suit.
Under the direction of Terry Kinney, Radnor narrates the events of those weeks, and the action often pauses while he addresses the audience and the small cast acts out the stories within the story — Oberholtzer memorably fills in as Aaron’s literary rival, and Halston portrays a hazy hookup with haunting sadness. The intimate nature of the small amphitheater-style setup at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater lends itself nicely to Greenberg’s storytelling; when Radnor’s character breaks the fourth wall, it feels like a personal appeal.
Reaser plays Joan as a bit of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the Holly Golightly variety, chafing against the constraints of public expectation, all awkward quirk and stilted delivery, with a fickle Southern drawl she can’t quite wrangle. (The elusive accent is partially explained away by an Army kid backstory, but it’s distracting nonetheless.) As Aaron, Radnor doesn’t need to stretch too far from the nice guy architect he played on HIMYM: His writer character straddles the line between confidence in his talent and frustration with his output in a manner that will ring true for anyone with creative leanings. But his infatuation with Joan feels a little forced — their chemistry doesn’t quite support their near-instant attraction.
Luckily, that’s not an issue for the rest of the cast. Even when she’s not in the spotlight, Graff (who first made a splash in 1989’s City of Angels) is magnetic — confronted with a personality she can’t easily categorize, her Frieda brims with self-satisfaction and moral authority, betraying just a hint of the insecurity that lies beneath her carefully cultivated exterior. Corman (Broadway’s 2013 revival of Picnic) also shines, coupling her character’s quiet confidence with an air of fragile vulnerability.
It’s highly unlikely that Greenberg set out to pen a piece of political commentary — for the most part, The Babylon Line sticks to period prose — but a pointedly delivered barb about a property developer garners a big laugh and lends a note of contemporary relevance to the proceedings. A few slightly uncomfortable jokes at the expense of a less intelligent character aside, the quiet, funny script resonates with the evergreen themes of community, desire, and self-discovery. It’s a memorable ride.