WHAT “The Babylon Line”
WHERE Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center Theater
INFO $77-$87; 212-239-6200; lct.org
BOTTOM LINE Leisurely setup but lots of vital payoffs.
Richard Greenberg’s rich, intentionally untidy new play, “The Babylon Line,” begins with the words “the end.” But then, of course, it cannot just end there.
The deceptively simple situation is an adult creative writing course taught in Levittown by Aaron Port, a barely successful author/reverse commuter from Greenwich Village. But the endings — and there end up being many of them — keep piling up, as if Greenberg, a marvelous storyteller, has so many people alive in his imagination that he can’t bear to shortchange any of them.
And if you love the way he writes about the extraordinary twists in ordinary lives — which I obviously do — you will be patient with the leisurely setup of what appears to be an old-fashioned, naturalistic, somewhat scattershot two-act play. Trust that with this prolific Tony-winning playwright (“Take Me Out”), payoffs are eventually coming, lots of them, and they are worth the wait.
But let’s start at the beginning. The teacher (Josh Radnor) explains to us that he has waited 48 years to write about his weekly class of six — Long Island housewives and various misfits — because “I may not come off well in it.” This is true. He doesn’t, but then neither does anyone else for long.
It is 1967, a time no one knew would initiate so much change. The class is not promising. Most of the students wound up there because classes they wanted were closed. Three are Jewish almost-matrons — played by Julie Halston, Maddie Corman and the especially wonderful Randy Graff. Director Terry Kinney treats them at first like gossipy, close-minded cliches. We are meant to underestimate them, but Greenberg and Kinney have more in mind for this first-rate cast.
Then there is Joan, the mysterious younger woman (Elizabeth Reaser), who seems shy but dresses in provocative sweaters. (Apt costumes are by Sarah J. Holden, though why does nobody wear boots in a blizzard?) Joan burns to be a writer, doesn’t fit with the judgmental community and, we soon learn, hadn’t left her house in seven years.
The two other classmates are men — the virtuosic deadpan Frank Wood and Michael Oberholtzer, who morphs into a variety of wildly different young men. As students read their papers, the classmates transform for a blink or two into characters from the stories. Scenes get more and more surreal as the teacher fast-forwards to tell what became of these people.
There are plays within plays, life stories within stories, including one referring to a Long Island woman from another Greenberg play, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair.” How fascinating that, in Greenberg’s restless mind, their lives — and the trains that carry them — go on.