Richard Greenberg’s numerous plays fall handily into three categories: triumphs, mishaps, and… well, it’s hard to know what to call that middle group: the many that don’t sit entirely right with you, but contain substance that can trouble the mind for years afterward.
Critics have been known to wax indignant at these works, with their now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t virtues; Greenberg compounds the problem by being, whether at his best or at his worst, an elliptical writer. His characters rarely talk like “real” people (unless you assume that real people spent a great deal of their childhood reading Oscar Wilde), and the actions they commit are often motivated by some past situation that may be played out before the audience, but just as often may not. Even the most successful Greenberg plays, like Take Me Out or Three Days of Rain, contain crucial story elements that a moment’s inattentiveness might make you miss. Like liberty, Greenberg’s plays demand eternal vigilance.
And most often, they are worth the effort. His latest, The Babylon Line, now playing at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater, is one of his less fulfilling, a semi-mishap, the mind-troubling aspects of which give out only faint rewards. Yet as it travels in its odd, meandering, unsatisfactory way, it stirs up some genuinely intriguing ideas. It also gives opportunities for a clutch of fine performances, most notably by Randy Graff, Maddie Corman, and Julie Halston as a trio of suburban homemakers in search of mental exercise, whose comic attitudinizings could have come right out of an etching by Daumier. If we hadn’t had the painful election we’ve just endured, Graff’s depiction of the domineering Frieda Cohen would have become my new standard image of the totalitarian mind at work, absurd and terrifying in equal measure.
The scene is an adult-ed creative-writing class, taught evenings at a high school in Levittown, Long Island, in 1967. In the outside world, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War is just beginning to deepen. Levittown, a comfortable middle-income community on the LIRR route to Babylon, is still in popular parlance a classic joke: the boxlike suburban development where all the houses are more or less identical. The writing teacher, a would-be smart guy from Manhattan named Aaron Port (the likably hapless Josh Radnor), sports far more attitude than teaching ability; his meager credentials consist of a single short story published in a prestigious literary periodical. In need of cash, he takes over the class from a more successful writer friend. It becomes clear early on that amicable Aaron is fairly ineffectual as both writer and teacher.
Not that his students offer him much inspiration. There are the three matrons, fairly typical denizens of such courses, disheartened (though not yet desperate) housewives whose main desire is an evening off from husband and kids. They’ve decided to try creative writing chiefly because French cooking and current affairs were all booked up, and Frieda, their self-appointed leader, disapproves of the guy who teaches flower arranging. Also confronting Aaron are an aging World War II vet (Frank Wood) with soldiering anecdotes to peddle and troubling dreams to get rid of, plus a youthful local eccentric (Michael Oberholzer) who has taken too many drugs too early in life. Writing doesn’t seem to be a main interest for any of them: Frieda, on learning that the students will actually be expected to produce, says, “Now, that perturbs me a little.”
But then there’s Joan Dellamond (Elizabeth Reaser), one of those dangerous, inexplicable students who tempt teachers into ignoring the rest of the class. Joan, whose last name could mean “of the world” or (in a German-Italian mash-up) “from the moon,” seems like a space alien amid Levittown’s banal conventionality. She’s a self-educated, somewhat agoraphobic introvert with, it turns out, a tremendous capacity for both understanding literature and creating it. She’s also attractive, childless, and trapped in a dead-end marriage, making her a near-irresistible temptation to Aaron, whose own connection to a live-in girlfriend back in Greenwich Village has reached the same standstill as his writing career. While the Babylon train roars up from New York and back again (in gigantic moving projections by Darrel Maloney), Aaron and his prize pupil evolve a cautious relationship.
Like everything and everyone else in the play, that relationship turns out not to be exactly what you’d expect. Greenberg, unlike the developers of Levittown, abhors working along straight lines. In his plays the route from x to y and then on to z is likely to lead through any number of letters from elsewhere in the alphabet. By the time Aaron, narrating the story as a flashback from his old age in 2015, has finished summarizing what became of his odd lot of 1967 students, we have had flashbacks within flashbacks to half a dozen other stories, and the flash-forwards in the end-of-play summary get even odder. (One reaches forward into Greenberg’s most recent previous play, Our Mother’s Brief Affair, seen last season at Manhattan Theatre Club — another mind-troubling semi-mishap.) Everything that doesn’t say “Levittown” — Hollywood success, lesbianism, leftist subversion, outsider art — turns out to fit snugly in this classic nest of American conformity.
Or perhaps not exactly snugly, though Terry Kinney, directing, does his best to make the transitions — from 1967 to other times, from narration to action, from fiction to fact — seem natural. The Babylon Line bulges in odd places, seems to stall in others, and tends to feel alternately as if nothing were happening and too much had been crammed in. Full of comedy, particularly thanks to Graff and her co-conspirators, it nonetheless has a mournful aura of hopes lost and destinies gone eccentrically awry, sustained by Radnor’s air of chipper ruefulness and spangled with the magical veil of Reaser’s eerie, pixilated performance. Though forcefully present, she seems to be speaking to us from another planet. But Greenberg’s inclusiveness is such that the supernatural, too, can find a home in his plays. The unpredictable journeys he leads us on carry their own weird magic — made, disconcertingly, from the most banal everyday objects.
The Babylon Line
By Richard Greenberg
Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center
Through January 22