“The Babylon Line” is one of those modest little gems that contains sparks of white light if you look hard enough. Richard Greenberg’s quirky new play is wholly enjoyable as a memory piece about the kind of creative writing course many an impoverished author (drolly played here by Josh Radnor) taught in the culture-hungry 1960s. But it says plaintive things about the role of imagination — or the lack of it — in the lives of people who feel they’re missing something, but don’t know exactly what.
This is the kind of unpretentious but thought-provoking play that Lincoln Center always does to perfection. Thanks to a top-drawer design team including Richard Hoover (the detailed set), Sarah J. Holden (spot-on costumes), and David Weiner (the unforgiving lighting), we know at a glance exactly where we are: the borrowed high school classroom in Levittown (reached by the Babylon Line of the Long Island Railroad) where adult education courses are held at night. If the place looks depressing, I refer you again to the superb design team.
Aaron Port (the face of misery, in Radnor’s droll performance) is making the acquaintance of his students in his creative writing class, including a formidable trio of Jewish Yentas who are all the more hilarious for being such outrageous caricatures. (Someone cast these three in “Macbeth,” quick.)
“Will we be, in this class, expected actually to write?” Frieda Cohen (Randy Graff, a treasure) wants to know.
“He’s a baby!” exclaims Midge Braverman (the divine Julie Halston) when she claps her eyes on Aaron. “This is going to teach us to write?”
Anna Cantor (played with sweet vapidity by Maddie Corman) has no compunctions about their young, obviously inexperienced teacher. “I’ve always been a good writer,” she says. “I won a writing award in high school.”
There are also two well-cast men in the class, a dour older man named Jack Hassenpflug (Frank Wood) and poor Marc Adams (Michael Oberholtzer), a “brilliant” boy who took drugs and is “not right in the head.” “Now all he does is take long walks and smile at everybody,” says Anna.
As delicious as this is, it could never sustain a full-length play, and at just the right moment, Greenberg introduces another character who immediately changes the mood and shifts the focus of the play. Joan Dellamond (Elizabeth Reaser, giving an eye-opening performance) does, indeed, live in Levittown, but she’s a bird of a different feather.
Although her husband works in the city, as do most if not all of the husbands in Levittown, and although they’ve been living in the community for eighteen years, Joan has yet to make any friends. She’s an odd one, and Aaron is properly fascinated, although perhaps not enough to respond to her blatant sexual advances.
Director Terry Kinney, who has done terrific work on this show, takes care to keep the chemistry between these two on the boil. But for sheer eccentricity and bittersweet feeling, what really resonates are the lives of all of these characters — especially the secret lives that emerge in their writing.
Eccentric Mr. Hassenpflug turns in a brief memoir of his fighting days as a soldier, an excruciatingly painful piece of writing for its utter lack of emotional expression. “I guess I wake up screaming,” is his laconic statement about the dreams he dreams, but can’t really talk about.
Midge, who really meant to take a French Cooking class, tells a sweet but eerie anecdote about the first time she mowed her front lawn. “In a way, it changed my life,” reducing certain members of the audience to …. if not tears, then tremors.
Thanks to the aggressive Joan, Aaron eventually opens up about his own demons, and Greenberg handles his sudden vulnerability with masterful restraint. But in the end, not even Aaron’s bleeding-from-the-heart confessions can stand up to that lawnmower story.