Have you ever wished you could travel back to your heyday? Of course you have. Looking back is part of moving forward, after all. Richard Greenberg unpacks this theme to great effect in his new play The Babylon Line at Lincoln Center Theater.
The premise is simple. A struggling writer turns to teaching. That may scream “cliché,” but here it is celebrated with a rich precision. The time is 1967, and Aaron Port (Josh Radnor) is making a weekly trek from Manhattan to Levittown to teach creative writing to six adults.
But the action and construction here are far from ordinary. Greenberg probes deeply into the consequences that arise out of this adult-ed premise.
The sweep of the journey ahead is signaled by the play’s opening line. We begin with a kind of farewell. The approach allows for a wealth of character dimensions. Just as the title suggests, with its echoes of the Bible and wayward civilizations, there are worlds unspooling away here, unseen but real amid these tidy Long Island streets.
Director Terry Kinney and his stellar cast stir up a rich brew of suburban tomfoolery. A trio of housewives, led by an abrasive alpha (Randy Graff), bubble away in gossipy choral kvetching. The male students are oddball aspirants from two generations, and the sixth student, Joan (Elizabeth Reaser) carries an allure of mystery potent enough to derail the entire semester. We see each student read his or her work, a variegated anthology which reflects far more than the quiet desperation in all those identical-looking homes near the Hempstead Turnpike.
We spend much of the time in the present, 1967, and the realities of the moment are matched expertly in Richard Hoover’s set, a period schoolroom which handily overcomes the sightline challenges of the Newhouse thrust stage. The sequence of events is well-framed by the progression of the classes and the increasingly turbulent chemistry between the mystery woman and her agonized instructor. Again, The Babylon Line takes us far from the expected or the typical, and every item of stagecraft, including the school desks and the weather, amps up the volatile heat that Reaser puts forth in her exquisite portrait of a woman determined to break through the usual protocols.
At key times, Greenberg transports us beyond the moment, into the fictive worlds of the students, as well as into the vision of what is to come, which, here, is also what is already past, as well as present. It’s a sweet swirl, all shaped by the perspective of our hero, that struggling writer, the lone ranger of his age, there to witness it all, and to wonder long after.
Josh Radnor brings a soulful grace to this character, which he renders in commanding detail. His scenes with Elizabeth Reaser seethe with a riveting tension. Each member of this outstanding ensemble (including Graff, Maddie Corman, Julie Halston, Michael Oberholtzer, and Frank Wood) has a share in the highlight moments of this vivid, compelling production.
Take a trip on The Babylon Line to see some new worlds hidden in the familiar landscape of the American scene.
The Babylon Line runs through Jan. 22 at Lincoln Center Theater. Tickets: 212-239-6200.