By Holli Harms
The Babylon Line refers to the Long Island Babylon line train that teacher Aaron Port takes weekly to his adult education writing workshop in 1967 Levittown, Long Island. Levittown the famed community of affordable housing for thousands of veterans returning from WWII and their families. It was the brainchild of Abraham Levitt and the first of many suburbia communities. Levitt built his homes with speed, efficiency and cheap. Highly conceptual, Levittown residents had to live the American dream in public. Your home had to be well kept, your lawn mowed and landscaped, and the life inside the home – perfect, homogenized, good, and godly. If you didn’t live it that way, if you had arguments with your spouse loud enough to be heard by the neighbors or worse took it out to the lawn, well then you were the neighbor who was NOT “Levittown right.”
All of this we discover as the play and characters unfold before us. The unfolding is through the “stories” they tell in the writing class that Aaron (Josh Radnor) has agreed to teach. He lives in Greenwich Village, is a fledgling novelist and thus took this teaching job that pays – remember this is 1967 – $15 a week. Josh Radnor plays his “cranky sour” Aaron with enough charm to keep us in his court. He is the engine that runs this train and he is a balance of boyish charm and New York edge.
Richard Greenberg is a master of word wars. Intelligent, clever word wars! As we ruminate in the mire of writer’s block with all the characters, he uses his words to entice riots of religious ideologies, of lives lived simple and the beauty of that simplicity, of writers blocks in living life and writing and being. His arguments are Shakespearean in their verbiage, a heightened emotional state.
So all of this, the words and ideas and stories, are told in the classroom of the local public school taken over one night a week by Aaron Port and his Levittown misfits: the three bored “perfect” housewives, the lost valedictorian who likes to greet everyone with Hello, Hello, always saying it twice. They worry about his mental stability. A war vet who is the lost husband in this land of glitter and glory, played beautifully with touching grace by Frank Wood, and the final and “late arrival” of the housewife, (Elizabeth Reaser) who has been hiding in her home for the past seven years. She has been reading those seven years and so now is the time for her to sit and write, and so she does. So exquisite are her stories that she becomes not only the best in class, but eventually she becomes a novelist, winner of multiple awards. All the things that Aaron would have relished.
The play felt like a train ride. You meet people and talk to them and find out significant and insignificant stories of their lives and then they are gone, off the train at their stop. Maybe tomorrow you will see them again and pick up where you left off or maybe a new story will emerge and you’ll have to catch yourself up again and again. But never do you feel close to the people you have met. Their stories are just that – stories. The end of the play there were polite applauses but – we want emotional connections – especially when there is so much promise – emotionally we were left stranded on the boarding platform, hoping for another train to come our way.
The Babylon Line by Richard Greenberg, director Terry Kinney
Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Reaser, Maddie Corman, Randy Graff, Julie Halston, Michael Oberholtzer and Frank Wood.
Newhouse Theater Lincoln Center Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.