Robert Schenkkan’s “By the Waters of Babylon,” detailing the brief encounter of a wealthy Texas widow and an expatriate Cuban writer working as her gardener, offers plenty of dialogue, monologues and showy business to attract a first-rate pair of thesps, which the Geffen Playhouse has located in Demian Bichir and Shannon Cochran. Trouble is, the text rarely provides enough to involve an audience for more than a few minutes at a time.
Prowling about the wildly overgrown back yard of Michael Ganio’s impressive design, Catherine (Cochran) and Arturo (Bichir) engage in the wide-ranging chatter of those who haven’t spoken much lately. Given her neighborhood shunning since her husband’s death under cloudy circumstances, and his loneliness abroad, it’s natural for a toolshed tour to become a mutual reaching-out.
That the probing will eventually go deeper is already signaled by play’s title, the famous opening of Psalm 137 in which the Israelites held captive by the Babylonians “we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. … How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Schenkkan’s duo are captives, too, and both find singing impossible in the strange land of Austin circa 2003 — he, by virtue of the perilous ocean escape costing him his comrades and his muse; she trapped by her marriage backstory, whose details (not to be revealed here) amply explain her disaffection.
That these individuals’ woes dovetail so neatly with each other, and with Psalm 137, doesn’t in and of itself make “By the Waters of Babylon” compelling viewing. Quite the contrary: As intimacy turns toward sex, and sex toward healing, the even keel of Arturo and Catherine’s nonstop talking becomes a real endurance test.
Conflict is barely present, and any chafing quickly blows over after a proffered apology.
Though enough mojitos are scarfed down in act one to drown an army, switching to straight rum in act two, helmer Richard Seyd shows no interest in charting changes in rhythm, slurred speech or physical stumbles over time. The drinking seems a mere device to loosen tongues (and in that it succeeds too well).
Everything proceeds to a magical-realism experience providing visual splendor in Jason Thompson’s projections and Jon Gottlieb’s sound. Neither surprises nor lifts.
Bichir is a gentle yet feral presence, and his pointed anecdotes of life under “el Jefe” (Castro, whom Bichir plays in the Steven Soderbergh’s epic “Che”) are the night’s most riveting tales. In past performances Cochran has demonstrated the range and vulnerability of a Kim Stanley, but here she seems too reined in by Schenkkan and Seyd’s narrow parameters as either hearty yee-haw matron or broken reed.
The strength of Schenkkan’s chef d’oeuvre, the Pulitzer-winning “Kentucky Cycle,” was its crackling good narrative acting as a hook for all his mythic and thematic interests. He played less to that strength in “Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates,” which largely sublimated story to scribe’s troubled musings over 200 years of American imperialist wrongdoing.
In “Babylon,” the characters are almost completely stuck in their past, with barely a present tense in which to participate. But since the present is the tense in which we spectators live, it’s no wonder the journey of Arturo and Catherine ends up leaving so little impression.